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Dual Credit: The Good News and the Bad News

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Taking dual-credit courses in high school doesn't save students much time or money in college, according to a pair of recent studies.

Findings from the two research projects, both conducted in Texas, challenge one of the most powerful messages that have fueled a huge increase in the popularity of the courses, which confer college credit while students are still in high school.

Educators and policymakers have argued that dual-credit courses can promote college completion, especially among low-income students, by reducing the amount of time and money needed for a degree. But the two new, separate studies take issue with that argument.

One, released Aug. 1 by the University of Texas system, found that taking dual-credit courses in high school saves an average of one semester in college. It also found that earning dual-enrollment credits doesn't significantly reduce students' loan debt unless they arrive with at least 60 credit hours.

Another study, conducted for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board by the American Institutes for Research and released July 26, found that credits from dual-enrollment programs decreased students' average time to a college degree by only 1.2 months, about the equivalent of one summer term.

Texas is an important piece of the landscape in discussions about dual-credit courses. In its longstanding work to boost college readiness and college-going, the state has pushed hard to use dual-credit and early-college high schools to open doors to college. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of high school students taking one or more dual-enrollment courses soared from 18,000 to more than 200,000, according to the Houston Chronicle.

For higher education leaders in Texas, the findings prompted reflection about whether too many students are taking the college-level courses before they're ready.

"I've been wary of the claim among some that dual credit is a magic bullet. It's not," Raymund Paredes, Texas' higher education commissioner, told the Houston Chronicle. "If students are not college-ready, it's an open question if they should be in dual credit to begin with."

Both studies had good news about dual credit, though, too.

The University of Texas study found that students who enter college with credit are twice as likely to graduate in four years as those who arrive without any credits.

The AIR research team found much smaller positive effects from taking dual-credit courses. Students who took dual-credit classes were 2.4 percentage points more likely than students who who didn't to attend college—especially two-year colleges—and 2.2 percentage points more likely to earn some kind of postsecondary credential.

Earlier studies of dual enrollment that found stronger positive effects didn't sufficiently consider that students who took those courses typically have more resources and higher levels of achievement than those who don't, the AIR study says. Accounting for those differences, the benefits are only "modest," it said.

And the benefits accrue primarily to white, more affluent students, the AIR study says. The increased likelihood of college enrollment and completion were primarily for white students, at four-year colleges. Among African-American and Latino students, there was an increase in enrollment at two-year colleges, but it didn't "meaningfully" influence completion rates, the AIR study says. 

Additionally, low-income students didn't benefit at all from dual-credit courses, the AIR study says, in large part because they are more likely to have lower levels of achievement, hindering their success in the college-level courses.

It's important to note, however, that the AIR researchers excluded Texas' nearly 200 early-college high schools from the study. Those programs are designed to graduate students with high school diplomas and enough credits for an associate degree in four years.

Related story:

Are Dual Credit Programs Overpromising?


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