The line between high school and college is blurred. Historically, there was a clear distinction between the two; that is not the case today. As school leaders across the country search for innovative and creative ways to educate this generation of youth, joining forces with local colleges and universities appears to be a win-win opportunity. Through dual-enrollment (or concurrent-enrollment) opportunities, high school students take courses that count for college course credit and also count toward high school graduation credit.

“There are a multitude of benefits for students and postsecondary institutions who participate in these programs,” says Elena Saenz, associate senior vice president for academic affairs at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD. “Dual enrollment takes the ‘scary’ out of college, particularly for students who are a part of the first generation in their family to go to college. It also saves students time and money on postsecondary education. Institutions benefit by increasing and supporting the number of students attending, completing, and earning college degrees.”

It is the norm nowadays to see college professors in high schools and high school students in college. Not only does this paradigm shift in education appear to be working—it’s often touted as a key to increasing rigor and preparing students for postsecondary education—but based on the increased number of high school students taking and successfully completing college courses around the country, this new and more common way of educating students at the secondary level is working well. “As a parent of a college senior and a high school senior, I have seen dual enrollment as an integral part of transitioning from high school to college,” says Carrie Bohrer, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association for Gaithersburg High School in Gaithersburg, MD. “The program has allowed my girls to be less anxious about starting college, not to mention having some general education credits out of the way at a reduced cost is good for mom and dad’s [wallet]!”

High school students are thriving in dual-enrollment programs, and the high school principal is a critical component to their success. School leaders allow for and support varied hybrids of dual-​enrollment models across schools and within school districts. The location or medium for the college course offerings may vary. The variations include the following:

  • Students taking college courses offered and taught on the high school campus by college or university professors
  • Students taking college courses on the college/university campus
  • Students taking college courses online through a distance learning or an online course platform

As a result of dual-enrollment options and strong partnerships, secondary and postsecondary institutions have also joined forces to develop early and/or middle college programs that allow high school students to earn a high school diploma and associate degree simultaneously. The collaboration between the two entities is critical to developing and implementing dual-enrollment programs. But, as referenced above, the key to a great working relationship and partnership between the institutional leaders that directly benefits students lies with the high school principal.

Principals must be open-minded, strategic, collaborative, and SMaRT. While open-minded, strategic, and collaborative may be self-explanatory, SMaRT is not an indication of intelligence, but rather an acronym for “Student-Motivated and Risk-Takers.” Principals must be open to nontraditional education, able to work with stakeholders to outline action plans, and engage with higher education partners to develop strong relationships.

10 Recommendations

To further understand how SMaRT qualities contribute to successful dual-enrollment programs, consider the following 10 recommendations, which are contributing factors to program success:

  1. Engage students in the design and creation of the dual-enrollment model that will be used, what courses will be offered, and when and where they will be offered.
  2. Provide incentives for students to participate in dual-enrollment programs, such as providing special hall passes or flexibility to come to school late or leave early on days when college courses are not held.
  3. Develop or designate space for a college lounge for students and professors in the high school building.
  4. Support policies that cover the cost of college courses for all students or students with demonstrated financial need.
  5. Meet with college staff to advocate for motivated students, and appeal decisions to not accept them based solely on their GPA or test scores.
  6. Secure industry partners to cover cost of programs that provide industry certifications offered by local colleges.
  7. Work with college faculty to develop pathways that allow high school students to earn their high school requirements via college courses and graduate early.
  8. Sponsor college nights to educate parents and students on the benefits of taking college courses while in high school.
  9. Promote dual-enrollment programs in the community and at feeder middle level and elementary schools.
  10. Utilize student ambassadors to promote dual-enrollment programs, giving underclassmen something to aspire to.

School District Leadership Is Critical

While principals are key, school district leadership is also critical to the success of dual-enrollment programs at a much broader level. In some states, these programs are promoted and supported at the state level, but that is not always the case. District leaders must be committed to developing a culture that promotes dual enrollment as an option. This commitment can be demonstrated in several ways and may include the following actions:

  • Designate central service staff to coordinate the district’s efforts to establish higher education partnerships and to work with high school principals to develop and implement viable programs.
  • Allocate school-level staffing to provide a coordinator to recruit students, support the application process, work with professors, monitor and support student progress, and supervise the overall dual-enrollment program at the school level.
  • Advocate for funding to support students who qualify for financial assistance to ensure equitable opportunities exist for all students.
  • Cultivate a school culture where dual-enrollment programs and other college-level course options (e.g., IB, AP, etc.) can co-exist, giving students multiple opportunities to earn college credit and to experience rigor that will enable postsecondary success.

The Benefits Are Numerous

Students and parents have expressed satisfaction with their experiences in dual-enrollment programs. “Taking dual enrollment in high school gave me the opportunity to experience college firsthand. Being able to walk into college with confidence, knowing what to expect from the courses I enrolled in and what to expect from my professors, was a weight lifted off of my shoulders,” says Tyler Woodward, a freshman at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. His father also touts the benefits of dual enrollment. “The program was a great way for my son to experience college-level classes at an affordable price,” says Jason Woodward. “The program challenged and pushed him, and he had the support in a smaller setting than he will get at the university.”

College senior Kaitlyn Bohrer encourages high school students to consider dual enrollment for a variety of reasons. “I highly recommend all students take at least one college class while in high school—any opportunities you can take to get ahead early helps you in the long run,” she says. “I took Introduction to Communications in my senior year of high school, which involved giving at least three speeches in front of my class. This was a huge relief for me, doing this in front of 20 other high school peers rather than 50 or more college students. Also, I was able to go to college with credits under my belt, experience as to how to study for college exams, and a baseline for what college would be like. If I could’ve taken more courses, I would have.”

All colleges and universities have different policies associated with dual-enrollment programs and credit. School leaders, students, and parents are encouraged to investigate these programs and determine the benefits.

Genevieve Floyd, EdD, is a district administrator for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, serving as the supervisor of Career and Postsecondary Partnerships. Christine Handy, EdD, currently serves as the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and is a 19-year veteran high school principal.