College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Should All Students Take Dual-Credit Courses?

By Joe Nathan — March 17, 2015 6 min read
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Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss whether all high school students should be required to take at least one dual (high school/college) credit course. Joe Nathan begins.

Deb, happy St. Patrick’s Day! This week I’d like to urge that one thing every high school should try to do within the next several years is have 80-90% of its students take at least one course that could lead to college credit before graduating from high school. An enormous amount of research is accumulating about the value of students doing this, whether they take the course(s) on the high school or a college campus.

Traditionally, dual credit was thought of as something that would benefit primarily the academically talented who were doing well already, but needed some additional challenge. However, researchers are finding that dual credit is particularly valuable for students who have not necessarily done well in traditional courses. A large national study by Teachers College, Columbia University found:

“Males, low-income, and low-achieving high school students all appear to benefit from participation in dual enrollment to a greater extent than their dual enrollment peers who enter college courses with more social, economic, and educational advantages. These findings indicate that dual enrollment can benefit a range of students, and may have the greatest positive impact on those students who are often excluded from participation.”
Another study by Jobs for the Future in Texas of students from low income families found, “dual enrollment participants were 2.2 times more likely to enroll in a 2 or 4 year college, 2.0 times more likely to return for a second year, and 1.7 times more likely to complete a college degree.”

Here in St Paul, CSC has been able to help 6 St. Paul high schools serving mostly low-income students triple their enrollment in courses that allow them to earn college credit. This project brought together four district (AGAPE, Creative Arts High School, Gordon Parks High Schooland Open World, and two St. Paul charter public schools (Community of Peace Academyand Higher Ground Academy). Each of these schools enrolled mostly students from low-income families. Several of them served students with whom traditional schools did not succeed.

Thanks to the Otto Bremer, Frey Family of Minnesota, St Paul, and Travelers Foundations for making this possible. The high schools are continuing to offer - and even expand their dual credit courses after the foundation funds were spent.

Results were encouraging. As noted above, there was an almost 400 percent increase in dual credit enrollment. More than 70 percent of students who enrolled earned college credit. The faculty in these schools deserve great respect for convincing many youngsters that they could do far more than they thought possible. This is one of the things that great teachers do.

As the students explain, these dual credit programs helped youngsters change their view of themselves, seeing themselves as able to accomplish far more than they thought possible. Khalique, Antonia and Jennifer have brief, powerful stories to tell about the positive impact of earning college credit while in high school.

State programs on Dual Credit vary widely. Some, like the Post Secondary Enrollment Options in Minnesota and Running Start in Washington, allow state funds to follow students, paying costs of tuition and (in Minnesota) books and fees on various college campuses. Florida “double funds” this. Many states permit students to take dual credit courses on college campuses, but make the students themselves pay for this. And every state allows high schools to offer these courses on their own campus.

State legislatures should insure that a variety of college courses are available, for free, on every high school campus and that the state also make courses on college campuses available at no cost to students. This gives students a “leg up” and also helps them develop the kind of “academic momentum” that increases high school graduation rates, as well as completion rates at a one, two or four year college program. What do you think?

Deborah Meier responds:

Joe, It’s an interesting idea, which--as you know--we did at the school--CPESS--that I helped found in 1984 in East Harlem. However, we did not require that they get college credit for it. That’s up to colleges. My granddaughter graduated from Bard high school with an AA degree, and got zero credits from Brandeis. Maybe it could be mandated for state colleges? Anyhow, I do not think it should--in short--be mandated. Admission to college should not be synonymous with college admissions standards. Colleges differ, courses differ, and what I loved about our practice was that it provided a useful experience with a teacher we respected (we selected the courses). And not all who took them got credit or “passed” the course, because we provided the backup for students who we thought needed it.

Mandates often deteriorate into practices to be achieved in form but not content. The fewer the better.

The NY Consortium’s mandates, in contrast, leaves most up to each school even as they require some form of public review of student work and some form of public defense. I’d mandate that for all in return for eliminating credit hour requirements--school-by-school--rather than on-line or bubble test requirements replacing credit hours.

Joe Nathan responds

Deb, I think we mostly agree about the value of virtually all high school students taking a college level course. Thanks for your accurate clarification that the actual awarding of credit is up to the college/university. We did a map for Minnesota showing the acceptance policies of various colleges and universities toward different forms of dual high school/college credit courses.
You are skeptical of mandates - like requiring each youngster to take a dual credit course. But I think the research about the value of these courses is so compelling that a mandate is justified. One Minneapolis suburban high school, Hopkins, that requires all students to take a dual credit course on financial literacy. Students can special needs can opt out. High schools don’t need to require that particular dual credit class. But I think it makes sense to require every youngster to take at least one dual credit course unless she/he has significant special needs.

Combine the research cited above, and summarized by Education Commission of the States just last year: “Research shows that students who participate in dual enrollment are more likely than their peers to finish high school, enter college and complete a degree.”

Our experience with the six high schools mentioned above confirmed research by Jobs for the Future, cited above. JFF found that all kinds of youngsters can benefit from taking some form of dual credit course. We should start with a course on something that strongly interests a young person. Some of those courses can be in applied, technical fields. Some should be available in the more traditional academic areas.

In his new book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam includes a chart showing that on average, high schools with 0-25 percent low income students offer 3 times as many Advanced Placement courses as high schools serving 75-100 percent free/reduced price lunch students. While I don’t think Advanced Placement is the only good approach to dual credit, this situation is scandalous and unacceptable.

Requiring all youngsters, except those with severe handicaps, to take at least one dual credit course won’t solve all problems in education. But based on research and experience, I think it’s a very valuable strategy.

You also urge changing the traditional credit hour requirements into graduation by portfolio, combined with a public defense. That’s a subject for another day. But I strongly agree that this approach should be an option for all high schools. As you may remember, we developed such an approach at the (district) St. Paul Open School, and found it world very well for many youngsters. Both employers and colleges accepted it.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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