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Dual Enrollment: Don't Restrict It to High-Achieving Students

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Many states make it tough for anyone but high-achieving students to take dual-enrollment courses. It's high time for states to break down those barriers and let more students get access to those college-level courses, a new report argues.

Dual enrollment can challenge students academically, and encourage them to see themselves as "college material." It increase the chances they'll enroll in college, and it can give them a jump-start on earning college credits. But in many states, the gates to those opportunities are closed to middle- and lower-performing students. 

In a new exploration of dual enrollment, the Education Commission of the States calls on states to rethink their restrictive policies. It also suggests several ways schools and districts can include more students in dual-enrollment programs even if their states don't lower their entry gates.

In a 2016 survey, the ECS found barriers to dual enrollment like these: In 17 states, students need a teacher recommendation to participate. In six states, they need a minimum grade-point average. Twenty-four states require students to meet some other kind of eligibility criteria, such as completing certain high school courses, getting their parents' permission, or hitting a state-determined score on a test. 

"Differentiated dual enrollment" is the model co-authors Jennifer Zinth and Elisabeth Barnett are floating for consideration. It means that high school students would be able to work their way up to college-level courses with the additional support they need to be successful.

How to Expand Access to Dual Enrollment

Zinth and Barnett point to research on programs in California, Utah, Florida, and New York City that have reworked their approaches to dual enrollment in order to reach more students.

In Utah, for instance, two high schools established new criteria to enable middle-achieving students to participate in dual enrollment. They included students whose teachers or counselors thought they had potential to succeed in the program even though they fell short of eligibility by a small margin, and students who were close to—but just short of—academic proficiency.

The two schools used those criteria to recruit students into dual-enrollment programs. The students also participated in experiences like college tours and financial-aid counseling. Final course grades for the middle-achieving students weren't much different than those for the higher-achieving students who self-selected into the dual-enrollment courses, the ECS report says.

The report outlines a few approaches for schools and districts to consider in expanding access to dual enrollment:

  • The "companion course" model. This would echo an increasingly popular "co-requisite" approach on college campuses, in which students take a college-credit class along with a remedial one for support. 
  • The career pathways model. This approach offers a structured series of career-related courses, starting with courses for only high school credit, and culminating in one or more courses for college credit.
  • The "student success" model. This approach would blend college-level content with material designed to get students ready for college. The college-readiness portion would include academic skills, and also practices and mindsets that will help students navigate college life.
  • Summer bridge. Courses offered over the summer could help high school students who are just below the college-readiness level bolster their skills in time to take credit-bearing courses during their senior year.
  • Test prep. In states that restrict dual-enrollment participation to students who reach a threshold score on an exam, schools coulld offer "brush-up" courses to help students do well on those tests.

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