Let’s Not Throw the Dual Enrollment Baby Out with the Bathwater

Dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to take college courses for college credit, have been getting some bad publicity lately.

In 2013, the popular college watchdog site Minding the Campus reported problems with instructor qualifications. More recently, an article here on the Martin Center site questioned the way dual enrollment programs are administered in North Carolina. And just last week, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about grade discrepancies among dually enrolled students at several Atlanta Metro-area high schools.

I am not suggesting such complaints are baseless, nor do I fault those writers for bringing them up. However, as we address the issues surrounding dual enrollment, I would hate to see us throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been involved with dual enrollment for well over 30 years, in just about every way imaginable.

I actually took a dual-enrollment class in high school. (Yes, they had them back then.) And my first full-time faculty gig involved teaching two days a week at a local high school.

As a department chair and dean, I oversaw dozens of dual enrollment courses, both on campus and off. All four of my children took multiple college classes while still in high school. And I currently teach between 80 and 100 dually enrolled students each semester on a branch campus of our state’s largest university.

So I’m a big fan of dual enrollment. Now that the program is finally getting some attention, it’s frustrating to see that so much of it is negative. Done right, dual enrollment offers incredible benefits for students and their families.

First, because dual enrollment programs in most states are heavily subsidized, students can earn anywhere from a handful of college credits—two or three courses—to two full years of college for a fraction of what it would cost them after they graduate from high school. With the average price tag at a state university approaching $25,000 a year, that represents a significant savings for hard-working middle- and lower-class families—and could well translate into less debt for the students.

Dual enrollment also provides opportunities for students who are stuck in low-performing schools, or who have simply matured beyond the level of their high school peers, to escape what can be, for some, a hellish environment.

We often hear about “school choice,” which I generally support. Yet as the name for Georgia’s program—“Move on When Ready”—suggests, dual enrollment offers real educational choice for students who often desperately need it.

Most important, taking dual enrollment courses enables students to transition to college while still in a relatively protected environment.

In working with college students over three decades, I have observed that young people typically must make two key adjustments during their first year. One is intellectual—that is, they must adjust to the academic rigor—while the other is social, meaning they must learn to handle their newfound freedom as nominal “adults.”

Attempting to navigate both passages at once can create problems. Many students find themselves slacking off, perhaps flunking out, in some cases even abusing alcohol and drugs.

Conversely, taking college courses while they’re still in high school (and presumably living at home with their parents) allows students to make that first adjustment without simultaneously having to make the second. Once they leave home and become full-time college students, having already been acclimated to the academic demands, they can focus on exercising their freedom responsibly.

Speaking of rigor, that was one of the issues raised in the Martin Center article. Some have suggested that dual enrollment courses are not as rigorous as they should be and that Advanced Placement courses at the high school may actually do more to make students “college ready.”

That has not been my experience. I have written extensively (here and here, for instance) on the comparison between dual enrollment and AP, and I won’t re-hash those points in this space. Suffice it to say, I don’t believe AP courses are usually equivalent to actual college courses, much less superior.

All four of my kids took multiple AP courses and did quite well. As high school classes go, they are typically much better than average, and I have no doubt they do more than most high school classes to prepare students for higher education.

But I’ve never found AP courses particularly college-like. They’re more like high school classes on steroids, with twice as much busy work (aka “projects”) and twice as many grades—often 50 or more a semester. Compare that to the typical college course, where students may have only five or six grades all semester (or three!), and the difference becomes apparent.

Unfortunately, many people equate “rigor” with the amount of work required and not with the quality of that work—or with the quality of thought that goes into it. True college-level rigor involves thinking critically and independently, something often far removed from the standardized test-driven rote memorization of high school courses, including AP.

Of course there are exceptions, instances where a particular AP course may be preferable to its dual-enrollment counterpart. No doubt there are also areas of the country where dual enrollment courses do in fact lack the necessary rigor, and students are better served by remaining at the high school.

I just believe those exceptions are relatively rare—and virtually non-existent when colleges follow certain “best practices.”

For one thing, my experience suggests that dual enrollment is most effective when students take courses on the college campus, rather than at their high school. Obviously, traveling to the college can be difficult for some students, which is one reason high-school-based courses are so popular.

The problem is that, when students are in such familiar surroundings, it still feels like high school to them. Making the class “feel like” college—so that the students, correspondingly, act like college students—can be a challenge under those circumstances.

Ideally, students are not only on the college campus, but integrated into classes with regular college students. That scenario also has clear advantages for the institution, as students who come to campus for one class are somewhat likely to stay and take others—which may be another reason high schools don’t much like the idea.

Even if they are offered at the high school, dual enrollment courses should be taught by experienced college faculty, preferably tenure-track. That, too, can be a hard-sell, as senior faculty often don’t want to teach off-campus. Hence the common practice in many states of hiring high school teachers as adjuncts—a practice also supported (and in some cases demanded) by school administrators.

That is usually a bad idea—even though many high school teachers are well qualified and would make excellent college instructors.

When “college” courses meet on the high school campus, with high school teachers, is it any wonder they’re not always truly college courses? In addition, as the Minding the Campus article points out, some high school teachers are in fact not qualified, which leads to problems with rigor and transferability of courses.

Dual enrollment programs thrive when colleges and local school systems work together in the best interests of students to ensure that courses are not just “college-like” but exactly the same as regular college courses. Then dual enrollment becomes a truly remarkable experience for students, while also doing a great deal of good for the community.

While some institutions don’t handle dual enrollment right, it would be a mistake to conclude that they aren’t legitimate.

  • Donald Singer

    Great column, Rob. The many benefits of dual enrollment far outweigh any negatives, especially when the program is structured in a manner that promotes academic integrity and achievement. I would caution critics of dual enrollment not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and ask that they inform themselves about specific dual enrollment policies and practices in their states before going on the attack.

    Many thanks to you for sharing your insights and wisdom from the point of view of someone who has been involved with dual enrollment for decades as a professor, administrator, and parent.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      You counsel us “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” which is sage advice; but, in this case, what is the “good”?

      Simply informing yourself “about specific dual enrollment policies and practices” in your state mischaracterizes the level of research and investigation needed to form even an incomplete picture of DE at the state level, which may vary tremendously from district to district. This makes a review of “policies and practices” meaningless. The lack of state-wide oversight, and accreditor interest, makes it difficult to assess the positives and the negatives. Caveat emptor.

  • Kay Cole Harrison

    Thanks for spreading the good word of dual enrollment, a program growing in popularity but still a topic foreign to many high school students, as they have been indoctrinated with the value of AP courses at the high school. Dual enrollment, like AP, should be a viable choice for students at the high school level.

    Having been associated with this program, not only as a parent but also as an instructor and administrator, I have seen the benefits that students receive from this program. Yes, students do benefit from the academics of the program and parents benefit from the cost ( or lack thereof), but
    the confidence that the program gives to students embarking on their next big educational adventure is ,as VISA says, “priceless.”
    Each year I see students coming into the program a bit shy and unsure of themselves. By the end of the year, they have learned skills necessary to survive on their own as freshmen, such as, time management and educational responsibility. As a result, the student has gained confidence in his/her ability to succeed in college, and the parent has the assurance that the student has already proven that he/she can maneuver the maze that can be college.
    As you stated, many of the students I have encountered in this program have been able to start college at least one semester, some two years,ahead of their counterparts who have not taken the dual enrollment classes, allowing them quicker access to pursue the major of their choice.
    I hope that more students and parents will investigate the dual enrollment programs in their states. For many, it is and continues to be a hidden treasure that is worth the search.
    Thanks again for bringing this issue to the forefront.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      So, education is reduced to mere credentialism, amassing the most credits so that DE students have a head start on the other students they are competing with? The only positive value that you really seem concerned with here is the household budget.

  • Trent

    Thinking all this through for my own kids (my oldest is in 9th grade), and this is very helpful. Thank you!

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Have you not read the reports cited here? Of the points raised, which have been addressed by Jenkins? Any?

  • George Avery

    Amen. I have a 15 year old who was homeschooled, then enrolled in an an-line charter school. He could graduate this December, so instead we are putting him in a local high school with a lot of dual enrolment opportunities as a way to allow him to mature before actually entering college (which will also save tuition money as a side benefit). This is one of the few ways that public schools actually attempt to meet their Title I legal obligations to gifted students, and it would be a shame to sacrifice it to colleges wanting to claim the tuition dollars. Frankly, my only reason for staying in high school my senior year instead of a GED and entering college was the financial benefits of the Advanced Placement classes (I entered college with 33 semester hours).

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Dual enrollment has little to do with Title I, since the college that awards the credits, and lists them on the student’s college transcript, is governed by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. That is the point, right?

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    What’s the difference between a high school teacher and a college professor? Not much, judging from this feel-good discussion.

    But you cannot turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. High school teachers don’t become college professors by magic — except when DE administrators like you wave their wands to put a teacher in a new DE classroom. Parents are too ignorant to know the difference, and accreditors are too busy filling out forms and reports to pay attention. Policy makers pretend there is no OOF (out of field) instructor problem with dual enrollment, and everyone is happy with pretending. What ever happened to accountability, oversight and transparency? No one cares anymore because they all believe in magic.

    I also took a college course (over the summer) while still in high school, and it probably was a huge mistake. It certainly inflated my ego, but that was about all it did. When I entered college, I should have taken it over, at a more reasonable pace. But, heck, what do kids know? It set me up for failure, years later, because I had not learned the basics. I only thought I had. Huge mistake.

  • Barefoot

    It’s good to hear this perspective on dual enrollment but I’d offer one caveat. Your “rigor” argument, I think, evades the actual critique.

    Whether or not the dual enrollment course itself is more “rigorous” than an AP course is irrelevant–one can’t get credit for taking a AP course, only for demonstrating mastery on a third party exam. The question is whether the dual enrollment course is as rigorous as a course at the 4-year university to which many students want it to transfer. In the experience of my family, dual enrollment courses are not.

    This is especially true as one moves up the 4-year food chain, and is not a knock on dual enrollment teachers, simply a reflection of the educational environment.

    • Rob Jenkins

      I hear you, Barefoot. In my experience as a parent, the college courses my kids took as dual enrollment students were every bit as rigorous as the courses at the highly selective private university to which they transferred. So I guess the answer is that quality of dual enrollment programs and courses tends to vary somewhat around the country–and that’s the very problem I’m trying to address here by talking about “best practices.”

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Yes, exactly: “So I guess the answer is that quality of dual enrollment programs and courses tends to vary somewhat around the country.”

        I believe this is where the conversation should begin — variances among states, variances within states, variances between counties, and variances among schools within the same county, and even between schools in the same county. Location, location, location.

        There is a national association that is working on “early college” standards, but the only “standards” are those of the federally recognized higher education associations that accredit the colleges that award and list earned credits. However, their standards vary tremendously as well.

        “Best practices” are currently the responsibility of the accrediting agencies, but NACEP works on this as well. The 2017 NACEP National Conference will be held in Washington DC. Pre-conference workshops will be held October 8, 2017. The main conference will be held October 9-10, 2017.

  • redweather

    Dual enrollment in Georgia is a fantastic deal and more parents and students should think about it as an option. But the AJC’s story raised a serious question: How can everyone in a class earn an A? Since many DE teachers at high schools are adjunct professors, it looks like a few may have decided that “all A’s all the time” equates with job security. That’s not rigor, that’s dishonest.