College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

Dual-Credit Programs Are Growing, But Do They Reach the Students Who Need Them Most?

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 10, 2023 2 min read
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Dual-credit programs, which allow students to undertake college coursework in high school, have expanded rapidly in the last decade, but in most schools they remain a patchwork of different courses. That leads both to inequitable access and uncertainty about whether the college credits students earn will actually further their progress toward earning their chosen degrees.

That’s the conclusion of a new report released Tuesday by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, which tracks dual-credit programs in public schools. One in 5 community college students now attends as part of a dual-credit program.

As of 2020, more than 4 in 5 public high schools were partnering with higher education institutions to offer college credit to their students, the CCRC report finds. But only about 1 in 5 school districts provided equitable access to dual credit.
For example, white students made up more than 60 percent of dual-credit students in 2018, but only about half of all public school students. Black students, by contrast, accounted for nearly 15 percent of public school students but less than 9 percent of dual-enrollment students in 2018.

“We’ve heard over and over again that dual enrollment [programs] are too often programs of privilege,” said John Fink, a co-author of the report and a senior research associate for the CCRC. He noted that many schools that offer dual credit have prerequisites and do not explicitly advise students in how the credits could help them in careers. As a result, first-generation, college-going students are less likely to enter the dual-credit programs or choose useful courses.

“We need to build and tap into students’ motivation,” Fink said, “because if you’re going to broaden access to dual enrollment, you also have to up the supports to make sure students succeed and do well in these courses.”

The report finds more than 400 community college-high school partnerships in 16 states have started to develop more systemic approaches to dual credit, called “dual enrollment equity pathways.” In these programs, educators in both K-12 and higher education work to identify the most needed courses for popular careers, then work together to identify students and provide supports for them to both take dual-credit courses and then go on to matriculate into higher education.

Fink and his colleagues recommended four key strategies for improving the programs and making them more equitable:

  • Outreach: Instead of simply providing courses, districts and higher education institutions should actively recruit students from underrepresented groups.
  • Alignment: Ensure the credits students can earn apply toward degrees in fields that interest them.
  • Advising: Couple access to college-credit courses with supports for students to explore different careers and plan and apply for college and financial aid.
  • High-quality instruction. Provide good teaching and academic support, particularly for first-generation college students.

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