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Realizing the Time-Saving Promise of Dual Enrollment

Students studying science

By Sarah Hooker and Joel Vargas

Dual enrollment has demonstrated its potential to boost college enrollment and success, but is the route to completion of a four-year degree as quick and seamless as advertised? This is an important question posed by a recent Education Week article, “Are Dual-Enrollment Programs Overpromising?”, which raises the related issue of credit transfer rules.

As Education Week points out, college courses taken by high school students are not always accepted for credit by the colleges where they enroll after graduation, or they may not count toward requirements for all majors. As a result, students can end up spending more time and money pursuing their degrees than anticipated, in spite of their early start. But to be clear: the lack of efficient transfer systems in U.S. higher education unfortunately leads to broken promises for the broad universe of students who transition between postsecondary institutions, not just dual enrollees. Among a nationally representative sample of transfer students, over two-thirds lost some of their credits when they switched schools, according to a 2014 analysis by the U.S. Department of Education.

The good news is that dual enrollment can indeed be a way to save money and finish college more quickly—when the right pieces are in place. As reporter Catherine Gewertz notes, Jobs for the Future has encouraged programs and policies that emphasize dual enrollment in college courses along a “guided pathway,” created in collaboration with colleges and universities. Such pathways help students follow sequences of courses that are planned and thoughtfully designed so they are more likely to count toward postsecondary degrees and credentials.

Early college designs are a prime example of a guided pathway approach that delivers on the promise of completing college in less time, at a lower cost. They incorporate intensive support to help all students identify academic and career goals and choose corresponding courses that enable them to earn substantial, transferable college credit or a full associate’s degree by graduation—all for free. In fact, about one-third of early college students earn an associate’s degree or other postsecondary credential while still in high school. Given that nearly two-thirds of early college students are from low-income families, the cost savings can be a boon. Associate’s degrees are widely accepted as the halfway point to a four-year degree, and many lead right to good jobs.

Some early college schools are also building an accelerated pipeline directly to four-year universities. As described in a recent JFF report, early college partnerships in El Paso, TX, for example, are better aligning secondary and postsecondary coursework via pathways from ninth grade through a bachelor’s degree. The goal is to limit the number of students who earn credit beyond an associate’s degree that do not align with a bachelor’s-level major. Since 2009, over 1,100 students have entered the University of Texas, El Paso, with junior-level standing after having completed an associate’s degree at El Paso Community College through one of nine local early college schools.

The elements of successful early colleges described here can be replicated and scaled. With support from a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, JFF and partners Educate Texas, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, Brownsville Independent School District, and Denver Public Schools are expanding early college designs across entire districts with particularly high populations of students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in higher education, including many English language learners.

Early college initiatives flourish in states with policies and agreements that make clear if and how college courses transfer between public two-year and four-year colleges. When dual enrollees are guided to take state-approved college courses, they should be guaranteed credit transfer. After all, these courses generate a college transcript just as they do for “traditional” college students—marking the college’s validation of the quality of the course and a student’s accomplishments. Improving transfer policies across the country would enable all dual enrollment programs to keep their promises, helping students optimize time to college completion and minimize costs.

Photo courtesy Flickr