Dual-enrollment courses have become a popular way for states to boost college access for traditionally underserved students. But over time, minority and low-income students have become less likely to take those classes than their white and more-affluent peers.
That’s a key finding of a study published Tuesday by the RAND Corp. It examined dual-credit programs in Texas, where overall enrollment in such classes soared 650 percent between 2000 and 2015. The researchers still have important questions to answer in a second phase of the study, but they released their interim findings.
The new study raises vexing questions about expanding access to college opportunity, especially among those who need it the most. They’re important questions, since dual-credit programs—which allow students to earn simultaneous high school and college credit—have so many documented benefits. Students who participate tend to earn better grades, and are more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree.
The RAND team found that while the rate of growth in dual-credit courses was greater for African-American and Latino students in Texas between 2000 and 2015 than for white students, the gaps in enrollment among racial groups grew wider.
The study shows similar gaps among other groups of students. In 2011,18 percent of low-income students participated in dual-credit programs, compared to 27 percent of wealthier students—a 9 percent gap. By 2015, that gap grew 1 percentage point, with a 13 percent enrollment rate for low-income students and 23 percent for more-affluent students.
Participation in dual-credit programs declined across the board in Texas between 2011 and 2015, but RAND researchers chalked that up to demographic changes statewide that increased the numbers of students who lacked the academic preparation to qualify for those classes. Texas requires most students to demonstrate college readiness, through test scores or other means, to enroll in dual-credit courses.
Between 2000 and 2015, African-American students were less likely than their white counterparts to choose dual-credit programs. In the first six years of that period, they were 5.9 percentage points less likely to do so, but by the last three years, they were 9.3 points less likely to choose those courses, the RAND study found. Patterns were similar, though less pronounced, for other racial minority groups.
The patterns of likelihood held true in other ways, too. Low-income students, male students, and students in urban areas grew less likely to take dual-credit courses between 2000 and 2015. So did English-learners and students in special education. But gifted students grew more likely to choose dual-credit courses (although that likelihood dropped slightly in the last few years of the study period).
Lindsay Daugherty, one of the study’s co-authors, said the research illustrates ongoing questions about the best ways to create access to college opportunity.
“There are always going to be tensions between creating easy access to these courses, and setting some sort of conditions for where students need to be academically [in order] to take them,” she said.
Eliminating all disparities in dual-credit participation would require softening or eliminating requirements for course entry, or doing a dramatically better job to ensure that all students have college-ready levels of academic preparation, Daugherty said.
“Improving college readiness is the longer-term solution,” she said. “When these kinds of policies are discussed, the quick fix, expanding access, is what tends to be discussed.”
The RAND research team wanted its work to inform discussions in the Texas legislature about expanding or redesigning dual-credit programs. Their conclusion: It would be best to wait and see what a second phase of the study shows.
That phase will explore, among other things, what might be causing the disparities in dual-credit participation. A range of factors could influence participation, such as unequal access to good counseling, wide variations in course offerings across Texas high schools, and inadequate academic preparation for the college-level courses. Participation could also be influenced by the availability of other college-prep options, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs, the study said.
Additionally, the researchers would like to wait and see what happens as a result of a law Texas passed in 2015, just as the RAND team finished their data collection. That law eases some key restrictions on entry into dual-credit programs.
Waiting to see whether the 2015 law helps alleviate the disparities in participation—or makes no impact—could help inform lawmakers’ subsequent design or expansion decisions, Daugherty said.
Photo: Getty Images
A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.