The growth of dual-enrollment programs in the United States
Dual-enrollment programs aren’t a new idea, but they’ve grown in popularity over the last decade. There haven’t been many large-scale studies of the phenomenon, despite the fact that community colleges have been allowing academically advanced high school students to enroll in courses for years. Still, proponents of the practice believe it can increase students’ college readiness, make education more affordable overall, and improve outcomes for students who might struggle to matriculate in a post-secondary institution. Nationwide, lawmakers in places like Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee and Louisiana have been pushing to expand high school students’ access to post-secondary education. As dual-enrollment programs grow, community colleges benefit by increasing their overall enrollment number.
Still, dual-enrollment programs can be a controversial subject in academic circles. Much of the initial research about dual-enrollment programs has had promising results and seems to support the conjecture that these programs can increase college readiness. However, some groups have raised serious concerns about expanding dual-enrollment programs. These detractors say that the growth of dual-enrollment programs may be harming both students and colleges. Community colleges have a great deal to gain by growing these programs and so must confront these sorts of issues directly, especially if they hope to merit further state finding and student tuition dollars.
Students who dual enroll may be more likely to achieve post-secondary success
According to Jennifer Zinth, expert on high school policy and STEM efforts at Education Commission of States, and Elizabeth Barnett, Associate Director of National Center for Restructuring Education, there is a substantial body of research showing the benefits of dual enrollment. In a recent article they show that dual-enrolling students are more likely to finish high school and to enroll in a post-secondary institution after high school. Previously dual-enrolled students are also more likely to be successful when they went on to higher education. Most surprisingly, both academically advanced students and middle-achieving students are successful in dual enrollment coursework. Middle-achieving students and high-achieving students received similar final grades in Zinth and Barnett’s study.
Dual-enrollment programs boost community college enrollments
Inside Higher Ed reports that community colleges have found dual-enrollment programs an attractive way to boost overall enrollment numbers. As the economy improves adult enrollment has declined. After the Great Recession community colleges have experienced a slow but steady decline in enrollment among adults over 25 – a key demographic. However, with the rising popularity of dual enrollment programs, some schools are making up for the difference with thousands of eager high school students. Many schools offer these courses at a discount, hoping that students will consider completing a credential after high school at market rates. State lawmakers have also put funding behind expanding such programs, even as other budget cuts loom.
Potential issues with dual-enrollment programs
There are a few serious concerns about the future of dual-enrollment programs. As the Inside Higher Ed article clearly suggests, colleges can lose revenue on dual-enrolled students if they don’t choose to enroll in classes after high-school. Moreover, there are some reasons to doubt that there will be positive outcomes for many dual-enrolled students after high school. The Community College Research Center has done a broad analysis of dual-enrollment programs by state, which showed the final outcomes for students are clearly influenced by external factors, including income levels. And the NEA has expressed grave reservations about whether dual-enrollment programs are really improving outcomes for at-risk students, or simply forcing post-secondary institutions to address K-12 institutional shortcomings. In the meantime, budgetary concerns mean few community colleges feel they can refuse new students however ill-prepared.
Reasons to be optimistic about dual-enrollment programs
However, community colleges may be able to benefit immensely from dual-enrollment programs, if they are administered responsibly and in a fiscally prudent manner. In fact, Generation Z is the largest generation yet, and 82% say they plan to go straight from high school to college. Community colleges should try to capture some of this key demographic. Dual-enrollment programs give community colleges a chance to demonstrate their unique course offerings and affordable paths to graduation. Gen Z, pragmatic, career-oriented, and engaged are likely to respond positively. However, colleges must make sure that at-risk students are truly supported on a path to graduation. Otherwise states are unlikely to continue funding dual-enrollment programs long-term, and schools will undoubtedly lose money.
By taking on the burden of supporting at-risk students, community colleges with dual-enrollment programs are assuming some of the responsibilities of K-12 schools. Rather than assimilating academically advanced students into college classrooms, the school must meet struggling students at their own level. This may mean tutoring, flexible deadlines, or other kinds of support. Though this will prove an extra outlay for community colleges, overall these schools are generally in well-placed to provide these kinds of services. Colleges often have more flexibility than high schools in how to confer credentials. Class schedules are adjusted for working students, and even offered online. Community colleges also often have writing labs, peer-tutors, research librarians and other support services for struggling students.
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