College & Workforce Readiness

Are Dual-Enrollment Programs Overpromising?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 06, 2016 10 min read
Sabrina Villanueva, a sophomore at the University of Rochester in New York, earned 12 college credits in high school through a dual-enrollment program with a community college in her hometown of Dallas. None of her college credits were accepted at the university.
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The popularity of dual-enrollment programs has soared nationally as high school students clamor to try college-level work. But the movement is dogged by questions about one of its key selling points: that students can get a jump-start on college by transferring those credits.

Take the case of Sabrina Villanueva. As an ambitious high school student in Dallas, she earned 12 credits at a local community college by taking speech, government, psychology, and sociology. Because the courses were part of a dual-enrollment partnership, they counted toward her high school graduation requirements, too.

But when Sabrina moved into her dorm at the University of Rochester last fall, she got bad news: None of her college credits were accepted for transfer. So much for her dream of minoring in psychology or sociology while majoring in engineering. Without those credits, she won’t be able to assemble enough coursework in those disciplines to do it on the typical four-year college timetable.

“I was kind of upset,” said Sabrina, who’s now a sophomore at the New York college. “The work I did didn’t get accounted for in every aspect I wanted it to.”

The dual-enrollment movement is having growing pains, as issues with credit transfer arise alongside its well-documented benefits. A lot is at stake for the students who invest time, hard work, hope, and in many cases, money, in the courses they’re told will produce college credit.

About 1.9 million students—11.4 percent of the secondary school population—were taking some form of dual-enrollment course in 2010-11, the most recent federal data show, up from 1.2 million in 2002-03.

A new pilot program offered by the federal government might lure even more students into dual-enrollment classes: the chance to use Pell grants to cover costs at 44 institutions.

Even the staunchest advocates of dual enrollment, however, are concerned about the potential fallout of its rapid expansion, such as difficulty transferring credit.

Leaders in the field are encouraging a “guided pathway” approach, in which more colleges and universities would spell out which courses will transfer for credit, and high school counselors would use that information to help students create “sequences of courses that are planned and thoughtfully designed” so they’ll be more likely to transfer, said Joel Vargas, who’s researched dual enrollment as a vice president of Jobs for the Future, a group that studies college and career readiness.

Where Are Dual-Enrollment Programs Offered?

The proportion of schools that offer dual-enrollment classes varies significantly from state to state. In 2013-14, 10 states reported that 70 percent or more of their schools had students enrolled in such programs.


Source: Education Week analysis of Civil Rights Data Collection, 2016

The issue of dual-enrollment-credit transfer “is certainly on people’s radar. It’s something people are concerned about,” said Melinda M. Karp, who has studied dual enrollment and is the assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University.

“There is a disconnect between what students are being told—that college credits are good—and the fact that college credit really needs to add up to something in order to graduate. That second half isn’t often expressed,” she said. “Accumulating credits that ultimately don’t transfer or apply to a major can put students at risk to drop out” or use up their lifetime maximum of Pell grants, Karp said.

A Little-Documented Problem

Very little research has been done on the proportion of students’ dual-enrollment credits that are accepted by the colleges they attend. The courses can be taught at high schools or colleges, by high school teachers with appropriate qualifications or by college instructors.

“Dual enrollment is like the Wild West,” Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, said about the question of credit transfer. “No one seems to know [nationally] what credits students are earning and whether those credits are applicable toward any sort of degree.”

Only a handful of small studies have explored the transfer question. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers asked about dual-enrollment credits in a recent survey of its 2,700 institutional members. According to preliminary findings, one-quarter of the respondents said they’re aware of problems with acceptance of such credits at other institutions, according to Michael V. Reilly, the association’s executive director.

A study of alumni of the University of Connecticut’s Early College Experience program found that students lose 13 percent of their credits, on average, when they enroll in college.

The Greater Texas Foundation, which awards scholarships to students in early-college high schools, where they can graduate with both diplomas and associate degrees, studied the experiences of 226 of its scholars. It found that while all their credits transferred, only 73 percent were accepted toward their major courses of study. As a result, most students didn’t earn bachelor’s degrees in two years as they had envisioned, “mainly due to credits earned that do not apply to chosen degree programs,” the foundation said in its report last October.

Some university-high school partnerships have secured rigorous national accreditation from the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. Of those programs, three-quarters report that 80 percent or more of the students successfully transfer credits to other colleges they attend, according to Executive Director Adam I. Lowe. Those 98 programs account for only a small fraction of programs operating nationally and include only a subset of dual-enrollment courses: those taught in high schools, by approved high school teachers.

Only half the states have agreements that require public colleges and universities to accept dual-enrollment credits, according to the Education Commission of the States, and those agreements don’t require the compliance of private institutions.

Sonia A. Gonzalez found that out the hard way. The 11 credits she earned in government and physics at a community college in Dallas wouldn’t transfer to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana when she enrolled there last fall. Had she attended a public university in Texas, where her credits would have been guaranteed to transfer, she probably could have graduated a semester early, she said.

Even some states that guarantee transfer of dual-enrollment credits to state institutions impose restrictions. Florida, for instance, allows its flagship institutions to refuse the credits. Tennessee requires dual-enrollment students to pass an exam and allows each institution to set its own passing score.

Revising the Pitch?

The problems with transferring dual-enrollment credit have sparked concern that it’s being oversold.

The courses have long been pitched as a way to build academic muscle and prepare for college, a benefit few dispute.

Study after study has found that participants are more likely to enroll in college right after high school, get better grades once they’re there, and have the academic momentum to stay in college and finish in four years. Entering college with credits—even if they apply only to elective or general education requirements—can allow students to dive into more advanced courses or explore new subjects.

But more recently, in the wake of the Great Recession, with college costs and student debt soaring, they’ve also been promoted as a way to save money and finish college more quickly.

Some students find that to be the case. But others with similar dreams end up feeling misled and disappointed.

Florida’s state college system says on its website that dual-enrollment courses “can save a student and their family hundreds if not thousands of tuition and fee dollars and expedite entry into the workforce.” The Rhode Island education department says that with dual-enrollment, “all students have the opportunity to reduce the amount of time and expense required to obtain a college degree.”

Sabrina Villanueva waits for her Spanish class to start at the University of Rochester. She said she had to rethink her plans to minor in psychology or sociology while majoring in engineering when her dual-enrollment credits failed to transfer.

In a 2013 statement about President Barack Obama’s initiatives to make college more affordable, the White House said: “Dual-enrollment opportunities let high school students earn credits before arriving at college, which can save them money by accelerating their time to degree.”

“It’s definitely being oversold,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “The notion of promoting more rigorous work in high school is fabulous. The problem comes when you build on that the notion that it’s a cheaper way of solving the vexing problem of college costs. It’s coming from policymakers who are terrified about where to go next in reducing college costs.”

Qualms About High School

Most dual-enrollment courses are taught by high school teachers, on high school campuses, and are sometimes called “concurrent enrollment” courses. Even though such teachers typically have master’s degrees, and work closely with their partner universities, these high-school-based programs are the ones that colleges view with the most skepticism.

Reilly, of the national registrars’ and admissions’ group, said his members “tend to be pretty confident when students take courses taught by [college] faculty.” A course taught by a high school teacher “just doesn’t quite ring the same way” when his members evaluate the coursework for transfer, he said.

Amy Roy, the director of college counseling at Westerly High School in Rhode Island, said that nearly 40 percent of her seniors are taking dual-enrollment courses—more than ever. But in the past few years, she’s noticed that more colleges are reluctant to accept the course credits, which students earn through a community college or state university.

“There are so many schools my kids aren’t getting credit at,” Roy said. “When I call them, they kind of beat around the bush, but I get the impression that they don’t feel they can guarantee the rigor of the course when it’s taught at a high school,” a reaction that frustrates her, because the students’ teachers have master’s degrees, and their curricula and pacing guides are approved by their partner colleges.

To ward off disappointment, Roy makes sure she explains to students—and their parents—that dual-enrollment credit transfer isn’t a sure thing, she said.

Higher Education’s Discretion

The University of Illinois Laboratory High School took steps to insulate students from potential loss of earned college credits. Its partnership allows students to take college courses, but only in college classrooms, with college students, and not for simultaneous high school credit.

Lisa R. Micele, the director of college counseling at the small, selective school in Urbana, said her school’s policy is based on feedback from the 15 colleges and universities that its students most often attend.

“They were telling us, ‘We don’t want these kids double dipping,’ ” Micele said, adding that many expressed doubt that students were “truly working at a college level” in classes taught by high school teachers. “We have not had problems with credits being accepted at other colleges, but I think it’s because we’re not double dipping.”

Jason L. Taylor, who’s studied dual enrollment as an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah, sees the credit-transfer problem as just another arm of the broader problem that plagues students who transfer from one college to another. Higher education has long exerted its discretion to accept some credits, and reject others, costing students time and money, he noted.

But many states are working in various ways to improve transferability of dual-enrollment credits, or, at the very least, ensure that students are well informed about their chances.

Florida requires its department of education to develop and circulate a statement that tells students and parents that dual-enrollment credits might transfer only for general education or elective credit.

North Carolina requires state-funded dual-enrollment courses to be taken in one of 12 coherent programs of study. Oregon set up a committee to conduct quality reviews of dual-enrollment programs. And three other states—Hawaii, Nevada, and Oklahoma—require students to take dual-enrollment courses in college, with college faculty, or online.

More states are pursuing the concurrent-enrollment alliance’s accreditation, which can increase the chances of credit transfer. Iowa in 2015 became the first state to have all its community colleges—where dual-enrollment partnerships reside in that state—accredited.

Lowe, the organization’s leader, argued that states’ keen attention to quality will affect dual-enrollment credit-transfer rates. “Quality and transfer,” he said, “go hand in hand.”

Researcher Alex Harwin, assistant editor Sarah D. Sparks, and library intern Teresa Lewandowski contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2016 edition of Education Week as Are Dual-Enrollment Programs Being Oversold?


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