Some Teens Start College Work Early Via Dual Enrollment

Concurrent enrollment offers students a chance to get high school and college credit simultaneously.

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Senioritis is said to sap the energy, dull the mind, and waste the time of high school students. But some teens have found a cure for the blahs: "Dual" or "concurrent" college classes let them earn high school and college credits for the same course. Some students go to a college campus, usually a local community college, while others study at their own high schools. Nationwide, more than a million high school students are taking at least one college class, it's believed. 

Unlike Advanced Placement courses, which are geared to high achievers, dual enrollment is usually open to a wide range of students. Some programs target students at risk of dropping out. 

[Read more about students taking dual enrollment courses.]

High achievers are going to college in any case, says Katherine Hughes of the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dual enrollment can motivate students who aren't on the college track, she says. Even those who've struggled in high school classes can rise to the challenge, motivated by the chance to "try on the role of a college student." 

While some states cover all of the costs, others ask students to pay for textbooks or community college tuition. "In Iowa, the class is free if you pass," says Hughes. "If you fail, you have to pay." 

Advocates of dual enrollment say it exposes students to rigorous classes that prepare them for college success, builds their confidence, and speeds their way to an affordable degree. 

[See the economic benefits of starting at community college.] 

"There's a growing base of evidence that dual enrollment students do better in college," Hughes says. Students who've taken "dual" classes in high school are more likely to start at four-year colleges and more likely to persist toward a degree. And they earn higher grades than similar students who haven't taken such classes. 

Whether dual enrollment leads to college success depends on where students study and what they study, according to Cecilia Speroni, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research and the CCRC. 

In Florida, high school students need a B average to qualify for dual enrollment in college-level classes. Marginal students—those who just meet the cutoff—are no more likely to start or complete college than similar students who just miss it, concludes Speroni's analysis, published by the National Center for Postsecondary Research. 

By contrast, taking a rigorous college algebra class "had large and significant effects on college enrollment and graduation rates," she found. High school students who study on college campuses improve their chances of enrolling in college and earning a bachelor's degree, Speroni found in a second study. However, students who took dual-enrollment classes on their high school campuses showed no gains.

That result supports the views of critics, who question the rigor of classes taught at high schools for students of varying achievement levels. 

Dual-enrollment students are doing well at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, says Matthew Reed, vice president for academic affairs. Yet he has "serious misgivings" about dual-enrollment classes offered at high schools. "When every student in the class is a high school student, I'm not sure that the students are really getting a collegiate level of in-class discussion." 

Compared to high school teachers, "college faculty members expect a higher level of work from students, including having them study independently, write in the discipline and be exposed to the latest research," wrote Glenn Sharfman, vice president and dean for academic affairs at Manchester College in Indiana, in an Inside Higher Ed commentary. "They are less likely to offer extra credit, or evaluate students based on an inflated high school norm." 

Colleges can help ensure that classes taught at high schools are true college-level classes, says Melinda Karp, a CCRC researcher. 

[Learn some other ways to cut college costs.] 

The National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) validates the quality of high school-based courses. To meet NACEP's standards, colleges train high school teachers in curriculum, assessment and grading for given courses, says Adam Lowe, executive secretary. College faculty observe the high school teachers and develop ongoing relationships.