It’s not enough to offer students college credit in high school if they can’t apply those courses toward a degree in their career field.
Solving that disconnect is the goal of dual-credit partnerships like those in Goose Creek, Texas, and Miami-Dade, Fla., two of more than 400 dual-credit partnerships in 16 states working to overhaul their programs and raise chronically low college-completion rates in their communities.
These school and higher education partners are working to “backwards map” the requirements for popular local careers and college-degree programs to the dual-credit courses they offer.
Dual-credit programs—partnerships between local secondary schools and two- or four-year colleges and universities—have grown rapidly with the goal of putting students on the fast track to a degree. In particular, the programs promise to make college degrees more affordable and attainable for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation college goers.
In practice, though, many students find the credits earned in high school either don’t transfer at all, or qualify only for elective credit that doesn’t count toward students’ degree requirements. That can turn an intended benefit into a serious liability, as dual-enrollment classes can still count toward credit or course enrollment caps for financial aid when students enter college full-time. And bad grades in those classes go on a student’s college record, which can also hinder chances for broader college acceptance and financial aid.
More than 1.5 million U.S. students take college classes in high school each year—double the participation of a decade ago. While a broad array of programs allow students to earn college credit before graduating high school, “dual credit” or “dual enrollment” programs generally refer to partnerships between districts and one or several colleges, rather than independent programs like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate or more intensive early college high schools.
In a report released earlier this month, John Fink, a senior research associate for the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, and his colleagues found that 4 in 5 public high schools now partner with higher education to offer dual-credit. But the report found many programs often end up as “random acts of dual credit,” meaning those courses on paper could fit into a wide variety of degree programs.
“Conventionally, nationally, it’s very often just general courses—basic math, English, American government, intro psychology, those sort of generic courses—that are the predominant enrollment and course-taking,” Fink said. “It’s sort of aligned to a bachelor’s degree for students who are university bound and that’s all great. One of the issues with that is, if you’re only doing 15 or maybe 24 college credits [in high school], you’re not getting into the pre-major courses.”
As a result, studies, including those by the University of Texas system, and the American Institutes for Research, found that taking dual-credit courses in high school only saved the equivalent of a few months to one semester of college, and didn’t significantly cut most students’ loan debt. And white students attending four-year colleges were most likely to see the benefits of dual-credit courses on their college attainment, compared to students of color in two- or four-year colleges.
Incentive for college partners
College enrollment fell precipitously during the pandemic, particularly for two-year programs, and while enrollment has started to recover, “that rebound’s basically driven by the growth of high school dual-enrollment students,” Fink said.
Fink noted that 1 in 5 community college students now attends via a high school dual-credit program. “Colleges are realizing that not only do they need to increase college access in their communities, but this is also a way to build a pipeline of future students who are already successful college students,” he said. “We need to not just offer any dual-enrollment courses, but high-quality dual-enrollment courses that are well taught and aligned to students’ interests after high school.”
For example, Miami-Dade public schools and Miami-Dade College ensured that dual-credit classes matched the course labeling and credit system used statewide in two- and four-year degree programs. That means credits earned in these courses would automatically transfer to colleges across the state, and students can more easily check their courses against the classes needed for their chosen degree at a given college.
They also analyzed the high school grade point average of students who were able to earn at least a B or better in 14 of the most popular introductory college courses. As a result, they expanded the entry grades required for dual-credit to a 2.5 GPA, and now provide new course pathways targeting high-need careers in the state.
Enrollment in dual-credit at Miami-Dade has jumped by half, with nearly 9,000 students participating this year, according to Malou Harrison, the executive vice president and provost at Miami-Dade College. Completing 12 hours of dual credit, she said, saves students about $1,700 a year in four-year degrees.
Yet many partnerships have difficulty aligning college and high school academic needs, Fink said. “Even where a college wants to change how they offer their math education or English education and coordinate with the schools on that, the [high] schools are sort of stuck in how they need to reach the [state] standards and tests, so those can definitely be barriers.”
Susan Jackson, the deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction at the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent school district, agreed that dual credit can give districts a way to think more long-term about their students’ academic success. Nearly a decade ago, Goose Greek decided to overhaul its dual-enrollment programs as part of reforms to improve single-digit passing rates for high school students on core state tests.
“We went through a strategic plan on, what is the end goal that I want to see at [Goose Creek Memorial High School]?” she said. “I didn’t focus on state assessment anymore. I said, you know what, if we can make our kids college- and career-ready, our scores are gonna come up by proxy. So we changed the whole culture.”
The district partnered with the local Lee College to review and expand its dual-credit courses to align both with the Texas college entrance exam and the most popular local career fields. They launched more focused credit pathways, such as global business and a future teacher academy.
Staffing was one of the biggest challenges to overhauling the dual-credit programs, as high school teachers need to be certified to teach degree-aligned courses. The Goose Creek district now helps pay for its teachers to earn master’s degrees or the graduate credit hours they need to qualify to teach the dual-enrollment classes. Lee College also pays teachers an additional stipend to teach the courses. The stipend means that a dual-credit teacher with six sections might earn up to $15,000 each term on top of their district salary.
Lee College and the Goose Creek district now co-pay joint academic advisers who work specifically with dual-credit students, both to help them select courses and choose later degree programs and to work through college transition issues, such as planning and applying for financial aid. Goose Creek also developed videos highlighting students and coursework in each career academy for middle school students and their families, and offers counseling to help the younger students explore different career options before choosing high school dual-credit pathways.
Today, about a quarter of Goose Creek high school students participate in dual-credit courses, with an 86 percent pass rate, she said. Students in the program also complete a Texas core 42-credit hour curriculum, which guarantees them financial aid for any Texas university. The district has also expanded its partnership to 10 local colleges, all of which provide automatic admission, waive fees, and provide specialized college tours and events for students in the program.