A growing body of research has consistently suggested that providing opportunities for high school students to take college courses is associated with increases in college enrollment and completion. Education leaders have responded. For well over a decade, state and federal policymakers have promoted dual enrollment through strategies such as creating or expanding funding streams for dual enrollment and early college schools, as well as mandating that local education agencies (LEAs) make available a defined quotient of dual enrollment (and/or AP and IB) options.
But efforts to expand dual enrollment much more will only get so far without attention to some key issues in the years ahead. None lend themselves to clear, one-shot policy solutions, yet they nonetheless loom large and relate to larger challenges in our K-12 and postsecondary systems.
What can be done to increase incentives for institutions of higher education to offer more dual enrollment?
While state policymakers are able to set standards, define assessments and graduation requirements, and use accountability systems to influence K-12 behavior, they have fewer levers for influencing colleges to do anything, dual enrollment-related or otherwise. Some states fund colleges for dual enrollees at the same enrollment-based rate as regular college students, though this does not lower cost barriers much in higher-tuition state college systems. A small number of states encourage dual enrollment through their performance-based funding formulas, though this method of postsecondary financing is still far from the norm.
If states continue to ratchet up K-12 incentives for offering dual enrollment without doing so for higher education, distortions or limitations in implementation are likely. LEAs and schools may be left begging for access and paying a higher price for dual enrollment. Also, by promoting college course enrollment without a true partnership with postsecondary education, LEAs may miss the opportunity that dual enrollment provides to align K-12 with postsecondary systems to help more students earn degrees or certificates.
Can funding for dual enrollment be increased by shifting any savings associated with reducing cost-to-degree completion or accelerating students to a college degree?
Financial aid and scholarships are generally unavailable to high school students taking college courses, and tuition prices can be insurmountable barriers to access for students from low-income families. And LEAs may struggle to cover these costs as dual enrollment numbers increase—without even factoring in the other costs, such as textbooks*.
College course-taking by low-income high school students is likely to be limited unless current financial aid or other extant public funding can be redirected toward dual enrollment and cost-efficiency be demonstrated. This hypothesis is currently being explored through the Department of Education’s Experimental Sites initiative, which is granting flexibility to 44 pilot colleges to offer Pell Grants to over 10,000 high school students taking dual enrollment courses. The initiative will test if the returns from increased productivity in cost per degree completed by dual enrollees outweigh the costs of extending financial aid to them. A second experiment is another Department-supported initiative seeking three local career and technical education models—including those incorporating dual enrollment—to engage in a feasibility study for a pay-for-success investment.
We will need to wait a while for these experiments to bear results, but they are trying to answer the right questions.
What are states’ goals for dual enrollment, and in light of these, how should they structure and support programs with regard to transferability of credit?
Lack of articulation and transfer of credit between colleges are not dual enrollment problems per se but longstanding challenges within state postsecondary systems. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (2016) surveyed registrars and found that while 86 percent of those surveyed reported accepting such dual enrollment credits for transfer, private institutions—which are outside of state control—unsurprisingly were less likely to. When credits fail to transfer, the risk to students is being unable to apply credit to save time and money toward a degree, and the risk to the state is unrealized efficiency in accelerating completion.
But should speed and efficiency be the primary, defining goals and benefits of dual enrollment? Not necessarily. Some research suggests that completing any college courses early helps students to complete college at higher—even if not necessarily faster—rates, which brings benefits to students and the public.
While states cannot control whether every college credit earned through dual enrollment will transfer or meet degree requirements for a student’s major, this should not prevent them from supporting dual enrollment or from trying to manage the small but significant risks relating to credit transfer. At a minimum, students and families need to be fully informed about the prospects of their credits to transfer in and out of state. Best practices include promoting college course taking aligned with in-state transfer/articulation lists and encouraging programs that put students on a guided pathway comprising sequences of courses that lead to a postsecondary degree or credential, including schools with an Early College Design.
What incentives, levers, or structures can policymakers use to build the supply and capacity of teachers to teach college courses for dual credit?
Dual enrollment is likely to see limits in participation without strategies to increase the supply of teachers who can teach for both high school and college credit. In many instances, highly qualified K-12 teachers do not meet the requirements to be hired as adjunct college faculty members to deliver dual credit courses (typically a master’s degree plus a minimum number of subject area credits). And college instructors are not necessarily motivated or trained to effectively teach high school students. In heavily unionized K-12 and community college contexts, instructors from one side of the secondary-postsecondary divide are sometimes viewed as threats to job security by those on the other side.
The Education Commission of the States has documented strategies, such as loan forgiveness programs, that a few states are implementing to support more K-12 teachers to become qualified to teach college courses. Teacher preparation programs, accrediting agencies, and unions might also need to take more proactive stances to help test new approaches that align K-12 and postsecondary teacher credentialing and training, along with other innovations to build the capacity and supply of instructors who can successfully teach college courses for dual credit.
How can policy promote more equity in opportunities for participation in dual enrollment?
Research suggests that dual enrollment’s benefits apply to students underrepresented among college goers and completers—but such students may have fewer opportunities to reap these benefits. Based on available data, racial minority and low-income students generally appear to participate at proportionately lower rates than their peers. This is due to a host of barriers, but they probably include costs (if students are not in a state or program that covers them) and challenges meeting eligibility requirements for college courses.
To promote equity of opportunity for dual enrollment, states can try to focus on inputs by investing in early college schools that are designed to prepare low-income youth for success in college courses; they can also focus on outputs by requiring LEAs to report through K-12 accountability systems on the completion of college courses by key subgroups of students. Beyond these traditional methods, states will probably need to expand blended online courses to reach students in rural and other communities with limited access to local colleges. And as discussed earlier, coverage for college course costs will need to be provided to ensure that low-income students can participate.
Dual enrollment has come a long way in gaining acceptance by education leaders as a strategy for promoting college entry and completion for high school students, but it will need to grapple with these and other challenges if it’s to become more widespread while maintaining quality.