Baby Steps at Community Colleges

North Carolina’s state politicians love the idea of “dual enrollment”—high school students taking community college classes while still in high school. In fact, they love it so much that over the last few years they have created an array of different programs for implementing it.

Now, the state’s community college and K-12 public education systems are moving to consolidate the programs. Officials hope that this will make them easier to access and more effective, especially since many see the programs as crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty in some poorer areas of the state.

At the State Board of Community Colleges’ annual retreat at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in October, board members approved the Career and College Promise program (CCP). The program’s official guidelines say that CCP will provide “seamless dual enrollment educational opportunities for eligible North Carolina high school students in order to accelerate completion of college certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees that lead to college transfer or provide entry-level job skills.” What used to be five programs—and a hassle for high school guidance counselors—will be rolled into one, starting in January. A sixth program, the Intellectually Gifted and Mature program, is getting the axe as part of the new initiative.

Some news outlets have touted the new program as bringing “free community college” to students. It’s true that some students in the program will have community college credit when they graduate—the basic premise of dual enrollment—but the CCP is not really a new entitlement; rather it’s a fusion of previous programs (one of which puzzled the Pope Center’s Jane Shaw a few years ago).

The five dual enrollment programs not being axed—the Huskins, Learn and Earn, Learn and Earn Online, Concurrent Enrollment, and Cooperative Innovative High School programs—all involve somewhat different formats and target somewhat different groups of students, as their names imply. Some involve students staying on high school campuses, some involve students going to community college campuses, some target advanced students, and some target “at-risk” students. This is a legacy of the relatively haphazard way legislators and governors have approached dual enrollment since it began in the state over a decade ago.

And not just state politicians. An extra degree of complexity was added in 2003 with an $11 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant, coupled with contributions from the state and private businesses, helped establish the North Carolina New Schools Project. The project has focused largely on creating and implementing intensive dual enrollment programs targeting at-risk students—the “middle college” and “early college” programs for which North Carolina has received national attention.  During the 2010-11 school year, there were over 12,000 students in North Carolina attending 71 early college high schools.

With passage of Career and College Promise (CCP), all five current programs will be revamped to form three “pathways” within the “overarching” pathway of CCP, according to Sharon Morrissey, chief academic officer of the community college system. Referring to North Carolina’s dual enrollment programs, Morrissey told the Pope Center, “I think everybody was pretty frustrated with the myriad of programs.” The new program, she hopes, will ease that frustration. After CCP is implemented, “High school guidance counselors will have clear guidelines regarding eligibility requirements and available program pathways,” Morrissey said.

More importantly, proponents claim that the new program will make dual enrollment more useful for students, ensuring that the credits they earn count toward a degree. “Often, dual enrolled students would end up with credits that didn’t count toward their major after they graduated from high school and enrolled in a university,” said Morrissey in an email. “Under Career and College Promise, students who want to transfer will be in structured pathways that lead to specific major fields (business & economics, health & life sciences, engineering & math, or humanities and arts).”

There’s one pathway for those intending to transfer to a college (with different sets of courses for different majors), one for career technical education, and the cooperative innovative high school programs (early and middle college high schools) mentioned above.

In addition to the narrower guidelines on course selection, the program intends to do a better job of keeping students on track. Unlike the previous system, “the eligibility requirements extend beyond course prerequisites,” said Michelle Gladman, a sociology professor at Durham Technical Community College who has taught dually enrolled students. Under CCP, students will have to maintain a 2.0 GPA after two courses and make continual progress toward a high school diploma.

Gladman said that CCP will be more selective than the previous programs in terms of the students it admits.  Some professors have complained that many dually enrolled students aren’t mature enough to handle college classes. “Some come prepared, some don’t,” acknowledged Gladman, while adding that there are a comparable number of unprepared community college students. Still, the new program aims to improve the caliber of student admitted.  “They have to come already prepared to take college courses,” she said. “There is no wiggle room under Career and College Promise.”

The new initiative began as an item in Governor Beverly Perdue’s State of the State speech in February. “The students of the Career and College Promise will have a new reason to stay in school,” Perdue said, “because for what may be the first time for many of them or their families they will have a clear, attainable path to success.”

After Perdue’s speech, the proposal gained momentum. The initiative made it through the General Assembly as part of the 2011 state budget in June, and the state’s K-12 public school system (one half of the “dual” in “dual enrollment”) endorsed the program in early May. With the state’s community colleges on board as of October, all that remains is for local education agencies to figure out which “pathways” to offer at which locations.

The program officially went into effect January 1, though many college/high school groups will only partially implement the program during the spring semester. By the fall semester of 2012, all institutions offering college classes to students in North Carolina will have to follow the new guidelines.