College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

Dual-Enrollment Programs Are Expanding. But Do They Reach the Students Who Need Them Most?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 12, 2022 5 min read
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Indiana is one of many states hoping that introducing college work to more high school students can help turn around lackluster high school graduation and college-going rates. The Hoosier State significantly expanded the schools with access to its “College Core” curriculum this fall, which the state commission on higher education says could save students more than $20,000 in college costs.

Indiana’s not alone. The Biden administration has highlighted dual-enrollment programs as a way to expand the pipeline from high school to college in response to ongoing declines in college-going. Only 63 percent of new high school graduates in 2020 immediately enrolled in college, down from 66 percent in 2019 and a high of 70 percent in 2016, according to the most recent federal data.

But experts warn that these programs may be failing to reach and entice low-income and other underserved students who could benefit most from what they have to offer. And that problem seems to have gotten worse during the pandemic.

“Dual enrollment certainly is very popular—all states now have dual-enrollment programs, most states have programs that are expanding,” said Sharmila Mann, a policy researcher at the Education Commission of the States who tracks dual-enrollment programs. “But students from racially minoritized backgrounds, students from low-income backgrounds, students who are maybe the first in their family to consider college are generally not represented in the population of students who take dual enrollment.”

Eligibility requirements are shifting

ECS found that 50 states and the District of Columbia now offer 87 different dual-enrollment programs, including 27 online. That’s up from 48 states in 2019, and covers an array of different credit options, from Advanced Placement courses to career-path programs that allow students to earn a certificate or associate degree while still in high school.

More than 40 states require students to meet eligibility criteria to participate in these programs, but the specifics have shifted in the last few years. While a majority of states before the pandemic required students to meet the entry requirements for local postsecondary institutions before taking college-level courses, now the most common requirement is simply that students reach a particular grade level or have a recommendation from a teacher before starting dual enrollment. And states like Indiana and California are strengthening policies that require colleges to accept credits earned in high school programs.

For example, Indiana’s “College Core” includes 30 credits’ worth of courses that students can take during high school, which can include Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and College Level Examination Program courses, as well as others.

Those credits are guaranteed to transfer to all of the state’s public universities as well as some private colleges, including Purdue University. More than 140 high schools opted to offer the program this year—a nearly 70 percent jump from last school year, according to the Indiana Commission on Higher Education.

The commission reported that more than 9 in 10 students who pass the full 30-credit block hours go on to enter college after graduation, at a time when little more than half of Indiana graduates are matriculating to postsecondary education. Moreover, it found students who complete the courses save, on average, more than $22,000, which the commission said equals about a year of college tuition in the state.

However, students and parents have complained that programs like Indiana’s often focus on general education courses, which may be less useful for students entering science or business degree programs.

Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said even without transfer credit, exposing students to college-level coursework early can help them develop the skills needed to succeed in higher education.

“Success in a four-year degree [attainment] can be predicted as well as, and in some cases, even better than high school graduation,” Balfanz said. “It comes down to having decent grades and challenging classes. … It matters that they take in [Advanced Placement] or dual enrollment or things like that to give them a real taste of what college work looks like.”

Money is a crucial issue in participation

However, only 13 states cover the full cost for at least one of their dual-enrollment programs, leaving school districts and students to pick up the slack in other programs. (The ECS plans to release a follow-up analysis in November on how states pay for their dual-enrollment programs.)

“The pandemic amplified and brought into really sharp focus that college-going has become very expensive,” Mann said. Under tight budget constraints, many school districts have less support to hire, or contract with, teachers from local colleges or train existing teachers as dual-enrollment instructors, or to pay testing and other fees for students.

“There just aren’t enough faculty in some high-minority schools or in very rural or low-income schools that are qualified to teach dual enrollment,” Mann said.

Some states have been expanding funding for dual enrollment. For example, Georgia has a dual-enrollment program that allows all eligible students to participate in dual enrollment without paying tuition fees or book costs. So everything is covered for any student in Georgia who wants to do dual enrollment.

“Participating in dual enrollment helps students get on a college pathway and complete college at higher rates. We’ve got a lot of high-quality studies that demonstrate it’s really an effective mechanism for high schools and colleges to partner to increase the outcomes of college readiness that matter to a lot of schools and colleges,” said Jason Taylor, associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah and co-author of a recent report on research on the programs.

But he said federal and state policymakers need to do more to help school districts identify more local ways to connect students to college. “These programs sit at the intersection of secondary and postsecondary systems, [where] often their data systems are not aligned at the state level,” Taylor said.

For example, Washington state developed an online data dashboard and partnered with the Northwest Regional Education Lab to create a tool for district leaders to analyze their own data and identify local barriers to bringing more students into the programs. The move has led to more investment in dual-enrollment programs not just for students, but for their teachers, too.

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