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Dual Transformation in Dual Enrollment

Accelerating Outcomes through Innovation 

June 20, 2024

At a Glance

More students should take strategic dual enrollment. Here are ways we are strengthening strategies that we know work to increase access and creating new strategies to enhance course experience. 

Anna O'Connor Senior Director
Practices & Centers Topics

Dual enrollment works. Want proof? Years of rigorous research and evaluation show it’s a powerful strategy for improving high school and college educational outcomes.  A February 2017 What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report identified five studies that collectively found dual enrollment increases the likelihood of high school graduation, college access and enrollment, college credit accumulation, and college degree attainment. These positive outcomes are greatest for students underrepresented in higher education—specifically first-generation college students, students experiencing poverty, and Black, Latine, and Indigenous students— positioning dual enrollment as a core equity strategy. Evidence also suggests that the monetary benefits to students and the public of dual enrollment models, like early college high school, outweigh the costs, marking a positive return on investment that is critical for families facing financial and systemic barriers to postsecondary education as the costs of attending college become more expensive.  

It’s time to reboot dual enrollment to propel the positive impacts through dual transformation—leaning into the practices that we know are working to improve what works today while at the same time developing new strategies through innovation that will reshape tomorrow.

But we also know there are gaps in access, quality, and applicability of dual enrollment credit toward valuable degrees. Dual enrollment participation varies significantly across the country and within states, and the physical distance between high schools and colleges can create dual enrollment deserts—pockets where little to no dual enrollment occurs for students. Gaps among racial groups are prominent as well, with Black students participating at less than half the rate of their white peers.    

With that in mind, it’s time to reboot dual enrollment to propel the positive impacts through dual transformation—leaning into the practices that we know are working to improve what works today while at the same time developing new strategies through innovation that will reshape tomorrow.  

For the last five years, Jobs for the Future (JFF), alongside many of our Pathways to Prosperity partners and beyond, have been testing this approach in states across the country, fueled by funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, which tests and scales evidence-based innovations to improve student achievement and attainment. We’re beginning to see dual enrollment partners blur the lines between K-12 and postsecondary education, build new systems, and redefine the student experience. Each of these initiatives pushes the field forward, contributing to learning across multiple sites and of benefit to all. The work isn’t done, but we’re learning what works and continuously improving to make sure these innovations stick.    

Strengthening What Works

The growing popularity of dual enrollment is clear: While community college enrollment overall has declined for almost the last 15 years, the number of students under age 18 enrolled in college has climbed every year in the same time period. In the last year alone, all 50 states introduced 527 bills related to dual enrollment policies and practices to increase access, affordability, and portability of credits. And we’re seeing high school and college partnerships evolve beyond the mechanical pieces of dual enrollment into a more comprehensive approach that includes co-designing, co-advising, and embedding dual enrollment in education-to-career pathways systems.

In many ways, this is great news; we want more students completing more dual enrollment credits. More than that, however, we want to ensure students are taking strategic dual enrollment courses—courses proven to open doors to the most postsecondary credentials and accelerate students toward valuable degrees. We need to move away from random acts of dual enrollment and instead embed dual enrollment courses grounded in education-to-career pathways.

That work has flourished in Texas, in partnership with the Texas Education Agency in the Lone Star STEM initiative, with over 1,000 students in computer science and cybersecurity pathways deeply supported through STEM curriculum. The state’s longstanding early college high school and related designations allowed partners to strengthen their dual enrollment course offerings to better align to the tech industry. The pathways were supported by the state’s newly defined STEM Framework and growing Texas EcosySTEM , emphasizing early STEM exposure and learning to better prepare students as they progressed toward college credit attainment.

Offering strategic dual enrollment isn’t enough to ensure students are prepared for course success. In Colorado, with our partners at Colorado Succeeds in the On-Ramps to Postsecondary Transitions initiative, we’re coupling a comprehensive career navigation structure and a holistic community approach to increase dual enrollment participation and completion. Across the state, 20 high schools are building systems that start with a College and Career Navigation Course (CCNC)—an opportunity for structured reflection for students to understand their skills, interests, and aspirations in the context of understanding college and exploring the world of work—as they launch into pathways and work toward dual enrollment credit attainment. Students will begin taking CCNCs in the 2024-2025 academic year and schools will continue to build new systems to support students, including a continuum of wraparound supports. 

Creating New Solutions 

Strengthening what works by elevating strategic dual enrollment is complemented by reimagining how students experience the coursework itself. With the number of dual enrollment students nearly doubling in a decade and a growing hunger for greater student exposure to work-based learning (WBL), the appetite and opportunity to break down the traditional barriers between the worlds of secondary, postsecondary, and work has never been higher. In partnership with JFF and the Tennessee Department of Education, 12 high schools in the TNSySTEM initiative are creating dual enrollment work-based courses. This model complements the state’s vision of innovative school models. These courses are taught through applied learning that uses the workplace as a “learning lab,” enabling students to simultaneously experience dual enrollment courses, gain college credit, and practice workplace skills that prepare them for STEM careers. Instructors and employers co-plan and co-teach course content, creating a seamless learning environment between the classroom and the workplace. So far, over 400 students have participated, with hundreds more to come over the next two years.   

The dual enrollment work-based course model works well when students physically move between the classroom and the workplace. However, we know that where students live can be either an asset or a hindrance in accessing a wide range of dual enrollment and work-based learning opportunities. Online learning removes the geographic barrier many students face, especially those in rural communities, but raises new concerns—students need extra support to navigate coursework independently. We’re testing innovations to combat these challenges across Minnesota with our partners at the Greater Twin Cities United Way and The Learning Accelerator in the Increasing College Access Network (ICAN). Dual enrollment instructors across three community colleges are increasing authentic learning in online dual enrollment courses by centering social-emotional learning strategies into the virtual classroom environment. Students across 50 high schools enroll in online English and mathematics dual enrollment courses that reinforce key skills such as critical thinking, self-management, responsible decision-making, and problem-solving.

Continuous Improvement 

The work has undoubtedly been challenging, with important barriers to overcome when approaching dual transformation in dual enrollment. In Texas, pathways leaders responded to ongoing threats of teacher turnover, amplified in rural schools, which revealed the urgency to certify more computer science teachers (a charge our partners at the Texas Advanced Computing Center are tackling). Financial incentives, professional development, and mentors are provided for educators as they become computer science certified, which is often difficult and costly.   

In Tennessee, the seemingly small act of coding courses exposed a false dichotomy, forcing schools to classify the course as dual enrollment or work-based learning. To create successful dual enrollment work-based courses, state and local policies must allow for the meaningful counting and crediting of experiences that blend traditional college coursework and work-based learning.   

In Minnesota, dual enrollment college instructors are experiencing a heavy workload in designing and strategically embedding social-emotional strategies. With a strategy like emotional check-ins, when instructors ask students how they feel, some share the profound challenges they experience at home and in their communities. Instructors are dedicated to providing thoughtful responses and supports to these students, adding additional time and effort to their teaching load. Pacing out social-emotional strategies and providing spaces for instructor collaboration has helped balance capacity.  

Our work in Colorado just launched with schools, but early indications stress the importance of innovating into existing structures and systems, like aligning the CCNC with the state’s Individual Career and Advising Plan (ICAP), and building on new policies coming online inspired by the legislative recommendations outlined by the Secondary, Postsecondary, and Work-based Learning Integration, or “Big Blur,” Task Force. 

Momentum Toward Transformational Change 

These past five years led us to our biggest innovation to date—scaling dual enrollment by strengthening community college leadership and transforming the ways community colleges operationalize and systematize dual enrollment to streamline and centralize activities through the creation of Dual Enrollment Hubs. This means developing stronger systems through: 

  • Developing shared regional dual enrollment agreements (as opposed to the typical one-to-one agreements between colleges and high schools) to ensure equitable access for students, regardless of their home district’s ability to negotiate a favorable partnership agreement; 
  • Creating staffing models that solve for the shortage of qualified dual enrollment instructors and allow instructors to travel flexibly across districts, increasing student access to a range of dual enrollment courses; 
  • Collapsing course catalogs and only offering dual enrollment courses that meet our definition of strategic to ensure students are earning the most valuable college credit and address major challenges in applicability, articulation, and portability of credits; 

This will be transformative for the field. Over the next five years, JFF will work with Texas, Arizona, Illinois, and more states to create these efficiencies and activate community colleges as engines of scale for strategic dual enrollment. 

Dual transformation in dual enrollment takes partner commitment, local buy-in, and big investment. A collective $35 million of federal dollars kicked off these innovations, and third-party evaluators will tell us the stories of their impact and, in turn, signal how to replicate innovative best practices that will impact the lived experience and career trajectory of tens of thousands of more students across the country.  

Support and involvement from stakeholders in education and workforce will be critical to continue driving toward dual enrollment transformation. Educators, policymakers, community leaders, and student caregivers can all play a key role in expanding access to strategic dual enrollment opportunities. Advocating for policies that promote equity and innovation, supporting local partnerships that align with career pathways, and contributing to building systems that ensure all students benefit from this powerful educational strategy are essential. Together, our collective efforts can reshape the future of education and create lasting, positive impacts for students across the nation. Getting involved today will help make dual enrollment a cornerstone of educational success for all. 

The contents of this blog were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research program. However, this content does not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

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