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Two Places at Once: The Growth of Dual Enrollment

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Programs that allow students to take college classes in high school have been gaining popularity in schools across the country.

They take a variety of forms, most commonly known under the umbrella term “dual enrollment.” In some cases, students take courses on community college campuses. In other, more common formats known as concurrent enrollment, the college classes come to them through high school teachers who are credentialed to teach the postsecondary-level courses. And at campuses known as early college high schools, located on or near college campuses, students can graduate with a high school diploma as well as an associate degree.

For some, the premise of such programs seems straightforward — a no-brainer, even, when it comes to saving time and money toward a degree in the long run. However, some critics maintain that high school and college should remain separate entities and worry whether 15 and 16 year olds — and in some states, sixth-graders — are truly mature enough for college and the responsibilities that come with it.

Adam Lowe of the National Alliance for Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships and Scott Montgomery of ACT addressed these viewpoints and others recently at an EWA conference in Los Angeles focused on college readiness.

“Across the country, participation is growing by 7 percent a year — in many states at considerably higher rates,” Lowe said of dual enrollment. While 20 years ago these programs were typically reserved for only those students who were academically advanced, now they are increasingly enrolling more low-income and minority students, as well as students who are the first in their families to receive a college education.

“There’s a growing state and federal understanding of dual enrollment as a priority issue for getting students into the pipeline for college and career,” said Montgomery, vice president for policy, advocacy and government relations at ACT. The organization recently launched an initiative to increase enrollment in these courses, urging states to make dual enrollment more affordable. (This comes as the Obama administration is experimenting with offering Pell Grants to low-income high school students take courses for college credit.)

What separates dual enrollment from other rigorous coursework programs offered at the high school level is the fact that courses are taken from a college curriculum and result in transcripted college credit, whereas credit-by-exam courses like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate might not lead to credit if the college the student enrolls in does not permit it.

“What you’re getting through dual enrollment is the college course — not a third party curriculum and a third party assessment, by which, you might…potentially get college credit,” Lowe said.

Dual enrollment programs have their own disadvantages, however. In California, for example, colleges are grappling with overcrowded classrooms and don’t have room to take in high school students. And in rural areas, transportation to college campuses can be a significant problem.

There’s also the question of who, exactly, is taking responsibility for a student’s college readiness and success in these hybrid programs. Students who perform poorly in a dual enrollment class are stuck with that grade on their college transcript, leading some observers to wonder whether middle and high school students are truly prepared to take that risk. Should high school counselors, who often already have large caseloads, take the lead, or should that advising fall to a student’s parents, who may not be well-versed in the effect a bad grade can have on future transfer and financial-aid prospects?

Despite these challenges, however, panelists plugged dual enrollment’s long-term cost-cutting benefits for families and the programs’ inherent college-going culture.

“From that perspective alone, we think this issue is one to get involved with,” Montgomery said.