UB op-ed: Reframing the debate on dual enrollment and early college

Lower costs and college-ready students are just some of the benefits
By: and | Issue: April/May, 2019
April 11, 2019

Russ Olwell is associate dean and professor of education, and Christine Shaw is professor of practice in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

The founding father of the accelerated college experience was, according to Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton proposed to the Princeton University president that he enter and advance in the institution “with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do,” allowing him to graduate earlier than his peers. Hamilton’s intent to complete his degree and to save both time and money is at the core of today’s early-college and dual-enrollment programs.

While early-college programs may seem like a perfect match to institutional enrollment and diversity goals, they spark heated debates in higher education arenas. A new study by the American Institutes of Research (AIR) found that early-college programming was not only cost-effective, but also delivered an amazing return on a modest investment.

AIR researchers found that “[Early-college] programs cost approximately $950 more per student per year than traditional high school programs, or $3,800 per student for the four years of high school. The benefits of [early college] resulting from the higher educational attainment of [early-college] students amount to slightly more than $57,000. The result is a net present value (NPV) of almost $54,000 and a benefit-to-cost ratio of 15.0.”

Administrator and faculty resistance

Despite many positive studies of early-college programs, resistance by some faculty and administrators continues. This is well-documented in a report by The University of Texas System, which highlights the concerns of faculty regarding student preparation and dual (or early-college) course rigor. However, the study also provides extensive quantitative evidence of the positive impact of the early-college experience on student performance.

As more faculty members teach early-college students, their views often shift from skepticism to support.

According to the report: “Compared to students who are not credit-bearing at the time of the college admission process, dual-credit students are more likely to be retained and to graduate from a UT System institution; have higher first-, second- and third-year GPAs; and have fewer semester credit hours at the time of graduation.”

We have seen this on our own campus in Massachusetts, where over 150 high school students from Abbott Lawrence Academy and Lawrence High School are scoring well above their college freshman peers in their college courses. As more faculty members at Merrimack College teach early-college students, their views often shift from skepticism to support, due to their academic skills and enthusiasm.


Read: New rules of engagement in higher ed


The reasons for criticism of dual-enrollment programs are varied. Many faculty resist blurring the line between college and high school. The logistics of working between the K-12 and higher education systems also require intense planning and work.

Reframing the discussion

The first way to reframe early college is to note that early-college experiences can provide a real opportunity for faculty and administrators at all institutions—public and private. Well-designed and well-implemented dual-enrollment and early-college programs help prepare students for the college experience. They are ready on day one—socially and academically.
Dual-enrollment and early-college programs attract a wide range of students, and are particularly attractive to families for whom cost remains the most powerful driver of enrollment.
University presidents must commit to supporting dual-enrollment and early-college initiatives, in partnership with the K-12 community. While continuing program evaluations are needed, campuses that actively recruit dual-enrollment and early-college students will see great benefits in academic achievement, diversity and financial sustainability.

Russ Olwell is associate dean and professor of education, and Christine Shaw is professor of practice in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.