What We've Learned About Dual Enrollment
Katherine Hughes, a researcher at TC’s Community College Research Center reports on CCRC studies of high school students taking classes on college campuses
This article originally appeared on betterhighschools.org, the blog of the National High Schools Center at the American Institutes for Research.
Taking college courses while still in high school can lead to a range of positive college outcomes for students, according to two new studies released late last year by the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR), led by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College. The two studies add to a growing body of research suggesting the value of dual enrollment, which has risen in popularity over the past decade as policymakers and educators have sought ways to smooth the transition from high school to college for many students.
The CCRC studies found that the benefits of dual enrollment were not universal, however. One study found that dual enrollment students were 12 percent more likely to go to college and 7 percent 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 their high school campus showed no statistically significant gains.
To investigate just how beneficial the courses are, the second study compared students whose grade point average 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 percent more likely to go to college and 23 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than similar students who did not take that particular class.
These findings could call into question dual enrollment programs in which college courses are delivered 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 CCRC’s extensive work in the field, the center’s researchers 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 clarify 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.
Hughes is the Assistant Director for Work and Education Reform Research at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) (http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu), Teachers College, and a senior staff member of the National Center for Postsecondary Research.