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Keeping Dual Credit Programs From Widening Gaps They're Meant to Close

Allowing students to take college credits in high school can give students a year or more head start on earning a degree, but in most schools, students don't get an equal chance to participate.

Nationwide, 12 percent of white students take dual-credit courses in high school, compared to only 8 percent of Hispanic students and 7 percent of Black students, according to a new report by the Aspen Institute and Columbia University's Community College Research Center. It found only 1 in 5 school districts have been able to close race-based gaps among students participating in the dual-credit programs. Researchers developed a tool, based on common practices in the schools that have closed gaps, to help school districts and colleges improve access for students.

"For many years folks have known barriers to participation like transportation, finances, and also placement testing," said John Fink, report co-author and a senior research associate at Columbia University's Community College Research Center. "What we see now is community college leaders partnering with the schools and districts to really think, how are we going to use dual enrollment strategically to expand college access in our community. It's a mindset shift from just, we'll provide it to whoever seeks it out to we're going to strategically use this as a tool to build students' momentum for college, even before they graduate high school."

Dual enrollment programs—which range from advanced courses to career and technical pathways and beyond—have steadily gained traction over the last two decades, with every state now allowing for some kind of program. While only 8 percent of all high school students and 12 percent of rural students took a dual credit course online before the pandemic, most states provided flexibility last spring to encourage high schools and colleges to work together to keep students from losing their class credits while campuses were shut down. For example, Idaho required public colleges and universities to continue to grant high schoolers credit if the schools moved a spring course online to complete the semester, and highlighted major universities such as Boise State University and the University of Idaho, which would accept some pass/fail grades for credit. Minnesota allowed its high school students taking college credits to continue courses through the college itself, either online or at a later time. And several states, including Alabama and Kentucky, allowed students to earn at least partial credit for college-based dual credit and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses without passing the final exams, after AP and IB canceled administrations of some tests. 

Perhaps because of that flexibility, Fink noted that dual-credit programs have proven an exception to a near-universal 7 percent to 9 percent drop in community college enrollment this fall, according to new data in September from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (Fink found community colleges are the partners for about 75 percent to 80 percent of all high school dual-credit programs.) That could make dual credit a key strategy to help the Class of 2021 make the transition to college during the ongoing economic and health crisis.

Successful dual-credit programs can help improve overall enrollment for both high schools and colleges, the researchers found. "It becomes a draw, so that's a big incentive," Fink said. "We went to Lorain County, a school under academic distress, and this dual-enrollment program and an early college they had in their high school were like the feather in their cap. It was a very big point of pride in that school."

Fink and his colleagues found school districts that had the most equitable participation in dual-credit college classes followed five basic strategies:

  • Prioritize equity in shared visions and goals for the program.
  • Expand equitable access, for example, by eliminating test- score or course prerequisites to enter the programs.
  • Connect students to advising and other supports.
  • Build students' competence and confidence with high-quality teaching; and 
  • Organize teams and relationships between high school and higher education partners to improve.  

The group also released evaluation tools for high schools and colleges to gauge their own programs.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled a county using dual-enrollment programs. It is Lorain County, Ohio.

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