Dual-enrollment programs are growing rapidly nationwide. The National Student Clearinghouse, in its term enrollment estimates for spring 2020, reported that the number of students participating in dual-enrollment courses grew at an unprecedented rate of nearly 7 percent over the last year. Meanwhile, there have also been signs of increasing interest in dual-enrollment programs due to COVID-19, as students seek engaging course experiences designed to propel them more quickly toward college and career readiness.

Research consistently shows that dual enrollment can be successful at improving students’ access to and completion of college, and that students who are low income or underrepresented in higher education enjoy an even greater positive boost from dual-enrollment participation. However, despite the larger benefit derived by these students, U.S. Department of Education (ED) data indicates that participation in dual-enrollment programs remains inequitably skewed in favor of more well-resourced students.

There are robust conversations currently taking place at the individual program, district, and state levels to expand equitable access to high-quality dual-enrollment programs at schools across the nation. Principals have an important role to play in understanding and advocating for the importance of dual-enrollment programs, particularly as costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic strain district budgets and require hard choices.

What Is Dual Enrollment?

Dual-enrollment programs allow high school students to enroll in college courses and earn transferable college credit through an established partnership between a school district and an institution of higher education. In addition to “dual enrollment,” there are many different terms used across the country to describe programs with these core characteristics—a 2013 analysis by the Higher Learning Commission found 38 different terms used in state policy across the country. This can also include more intensive versions of dual enrollment, such as early college high schools, also known in some states as “middle colleges” or “early/middle colleges.”

What Does the Research Say?

There is strong evidence that dual enrollment improves college transitions, persistence, and completion, especially for students traditionally underrepresented in higher education. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) in its 2017 “WWC Intervention Report” reviewed dozens of dual-enrollment studies against their strict criteria and found a medium-to-large evidence base that shows positive impacts on college enrollment and completion from those participating in dual enrollment. A long-running study by the American Institutes for Research titled “Evaluating the Impact of Early College High Schools” shows improvements in college access and success, and larger impacts for low-income and underrepresented students.

Prioritizing Equity and Quality

Access to dual-enrollment opportunities is far from equitable. According to the ED’s Civil Rights Data Collection, white students are more than twice as likely to participate in dual enrollment compared with Black students. Only 4.7 percent of Black high school students and 5.7 percent of Hispanic students nationwide participated in dual-enrollment courses in 2015–16. English-language learners and students with disabilities have even lower participation rates, according to data from the Community College Research Center.

In addition to more intentional work at both a program and policy level to prioritize equity of access to dual enrollment, it is also essential to ensure that these programs provide high-quality student experiences. Dual enrollment can only give students a leg up if they can be confident that the courses they complete will help move them successfully toward a degree or credential.

A Practice and Policy Framework for Dual Enrollment

The College in High School Alliance has advanced a six-part framework that is applicable for both practitioners and policymakers working to design equitable and high-quality programs.

To support equity and quality in dual enrollment, programs should work to do the following:

1. Setting an Equity Goal and Collecting and Reporting Data

  • Set intentional equity goals—with interim progress measures—for underrepresented student populations in your dual-enrollment program that accounts for both student access and success.
  • Collect and publicly report data on dual-enrollment program participation and success—broken out by student subpopulation—to show progress toward your program’s goals.

2. Ensuring Program Quality and True Partnerships With Colleges

  • Work with your college partner to better understand how credits earned by students in dual-enrollment programs will transfer, and encourage them to expand those transfer opportunities if limited.
  • Encourage your college partner to ensure quality assurance mechanisms are in place for your dual-enrollment programs, such as pursuing accreditation by the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, if your program is taught using high school faculty.
  • Ensure that there are formalized and regularly open lines of communication with the college partner to coordinate student support services.
  • Create opportunities to solicit input from third-party stakeholders, including local employers, in program design and revision discussions to ensure that course offerings are aligned with local workforce needs.

3. Reducing Costs for Low-Income Students

  • Structure your dual-enrollment program to reduce (or eliminate to the extent possible) costs for low-income students participating in dual-enrollment classes. Leverage existing federal funding availability under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) to achieve this goal.
  • Take advantage of state-level programs designed to reduce the costs of dual-enrollment participation for low-income students.

4. Ensuring Course Access for Students

  • Provide students and families with annual notifications about their ability to participate in dual enrollment, beginning as early as the middle level.
  • Provide transportation supports to low-income students, where program design requires that the students travel to the college campus for class.
  • Use multiple measures of eligibility to determine a student’s readiness to participate in dual enrollment, including options such as GPA performance over time, projects, portfolios, and performance assessments, or interviews and personal statements.
  • Do not cap the number of credits that students can take, and provide multiple class and pathway opportunities, including career and technical education courses.

5. Providing Professional Development to Teachers

  • Ensure that high school and college faculty have the professional development and collaboration time necessary to contribute to course design and delivery.

6. Providing Students With Support Services

  • Provide students with ongoing counseling and support services to ensure their success in dual enrollment.
  • Ensure that the participating high school’s counselors have been properly trained on dual-enrollment opportunities for students to ensure they can correctly advise those students about course selections and align those selections with the student’s interests and future college and career goals.

COVID-19’s Impact on Dual Enrollment

Due to COVID-19, our K–12 and higher education systems face serious, in some cases existential, challenges. Many students are experiencing significant learning loss during this period of distance learning, and the digital and resource divides are exacerbating achievement gaps. Students have less access, not only to basic education, but also to the accelerated learning opportunities that engage them and help them prepare for college and the workforce—a situation that will likely be exacerbated by anticipated state and local budget cuts. The disadvantaged populations in our public schools are the hardest hit, at a time when education is more important than ever for economic success and social mobility.

COVID-19 has intensified the fundamental need for students to enter the workforce with a post­secondary degree or credential. During this period of transition, it is essential that both policymakers and practitioners continue to support avenues for students, especially those with limited access or who are otherwise marginalized, to take advantage of those opportunities in order for the potential of this moment to be realized.

As previously mentioned, increased student interest in dual enrollment will likely disproportionately benefit students of privilege unless both programs and policy invest intentional effort in expanding program opportunities for low-income students, Black students, Latinx students, Native American students, and other disadvantaged populations (English-language learners, students with special needs).

As dual enrollment’s popularity continues to grow, it is essential that we support low-income and underrepresented students in getting access to these life-changing opportunities. On the policy level, supporting the costs necessary for programs to provide expanded course opportunities to low-​income students at reduced or no cost is essential if we are to continue expanding equitable access to and participation in dual enrollment. And for practitioners, there is also a series of program design choices that, absent new policy or funding at the state or national level, may provide significant new opportunities to expand participation and success of low-income or underrepresented students. We must ensure that, as programs expand, we are not leaving students behind.

Alex Perry is a coordinator of the College in High School Alliance. He specializes in postsecondary transition issues with a focus on dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and early college high school.