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Dual-Enrollment Programs: Funding, Rigor, Alignment Are Crucial, Study Says

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A new study of state dual-enrollment policies finds a wide range of approaches, many of which can hamper participation in the popular programs that allow high school students to earn college credit.

The study, by the Education Commission of the States, details each state's dual-enrollment policies and examines them nationally through the prism of 20 characteristics. 

The study looks at the basics, such as whether a state has a statewide dual-enrollment policy in place (three don't), and examines policies that support access to the programs, such as whether a state caps the amount of credit a student can earn. It examines finance questions such as who pays the college tuition, and it raises questions of program quality, such as the mechanisms for ensuring well-trained teachers and rigorous courses.

The database facilitates looking state by state, at each one's policies, or filtering according to one of the 20 program qualities or features.

Four things surfaced as key takeaways from the ECS study.

How dual-enrollment programs are funded is important. It can encourage or discourage schools from participating. And states are literally all over the map when it comes to who's responsible for paying for the college courses in a dual-enrollment program. In some states, families must pay, which puts low-income students at a disadvantage. Only one state provides districts with more funding for a dual-enrollment student than for a student who's earning only high school credit, writes Jennifer Zinth, the author of the new ECS database.

"Districts that can be reassured that they will not lose significant funding for students who participate in dual enrollment programs might be more open to publicizing such programs," Zinth writes.

Clarity about the right to participate is important. To maximize student participation, states need to be clear with districts that eligible students have a right to participate. In 28 states, dual-enrollment programs are voluntary partnerships between K-12 and higher education, so schools aren't obliged to offer them, and not all students are guaranteed the right to participate.

"Without a requirement that eligible students may participate, schools and districts may not be inclined to promote this option for students," the ECS report says.

Misalignment between K-12 and higher education can undermine dual-enrollment policies, too, ECS reports. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, higher education isn't required to accept for transfer the credits a student earned in dual-enrollment courses.

Questions persist about rigor and qualifications. Dual-enrollment programs continue to be dogged by concerns about the rigor of courses and the qualifications of high school teachers who teach college courses on high school campuses. State policies do not uniformly include mechanisms to ensure either one, ECS finds.

A validation of college-level work is important. Dual-enrollment programs need an end-of-course assessment that reflects college-level course rigor. Without it, the programs are open to criticism that they don't truly reflect college-level work, the ECS study says.

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