What We’ve Learned About Dual Enrollment

The National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR) at Teachers College, Columbia University, recently released two new studies of dual enrollment. Dual enrollment—in which high school students take college courses—has risen in popularity over the past decade as policymakers and educators have sought ways to smooth the transition from high school to college. The two studies add to a growing body of work that suggests that participation in dual enrollment can lead to a range of positive college outcomes for students.

However, the new studies aren’t uniformly positive. One of the studies, “Determinants of Students’ Success: The Role of Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment Programs,” found that dual enrollment students were 12% more likely to go to college and 7% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than non-dual enrollment students, but these strong effects were seen only for those students who took dual enrollment classes on college campuses. Students who took dual enrollment classes exclusively on the high school campus showed no statistically significant gains.

The second study, “High School Dual Enrollment Programs: Are We Fast-Tracking Students Too Fast,” compared students whose GPA was just above and just below the cut-off to qualify for dual enrollment and found no better outcomes in general for the dual enrollment students. However, further analysis indicated that the students who took a rigorous college algebra class were 16% more likely to go to college and 23% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than similar students who did not take that particular class.

These findings could be used to call into question dual enrollment program models in which college courses are offered on the high school campus. They also suggest that dual enrollment programs should focus on basic academic preparation instead of letting students choose from a range of courses. However, through our extensive work in the field, we have learned that dual enrollment programs often face challenges that confound these seemingly straightforward approaches to program design. 

For example, one California program we studied served students from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds with little knowledge or experience of college. It was difficult to both recruit and retain these students and the program structure developed around efforts to engage them. Because many of the students lacked transportation, the program located the dual enrollment courses on the high school campus; many students said they could not participate if the courses were held at the college. Program staff also discovered that the key to retaining students in the program was offering courses in topics relevant to their lives, such as “Academic and Life Success” and “The Multicultural Journey.” The students found these classes challenging but meaningful, and once they were offered, retention increased. The hope is that even a high-school based college experience can create the foundation and momentum for students to eventually take the next step onto a college campus.

Thus, while the new studies are important in helping us understand the program components that are associated with the strongest student outcomes, individual programs must always take into account the most effective ways to reach their students. Rather than adhering to a rigid blueprint for structure and delivery, program administrators should develop systems to measure student outcomes and use the resulting data to continually adjust and improve their dual enrollment programs.

Guest Author: Dr. Katherine Hughes is the Assistant Director for Work and Education Reform Research at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), Teachers College, Columbia University and a senior staff member of the National Center for Postsecondary Research.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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