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.