Dual enrollment can save college students time and money − but there’s one risk to avoid


In a recent talk about new ways to do college admissions, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke about his own experience taking a college course while still in high school. He was referring to dual enrollment – an increasingly common practice in which high school students take college courses, simultaneously earning high school and college credit.

A 2019 report showed that approximately 88% of U.S. high schools offered dual enrollment and approximately 34% of high school students in the U.S. are taking college courses. That represents an increase from 2010, when 82% of high schools offered dual enrollment and approximately 10% of high school students took college courses.

At the state level, there is evidence of dramatic growth. In Indiana, for example, 60% of high school students graduated with college credit in 2018, up from 39% in 2012.

As a higher education administrator who has been involved with dual enrollment in Boston’s public schools, I know there is strong evidence that dual enrollment programs make it more likely that students graduate from high school and earn a college degree.

How dual enrollment works

Dual enrollment programs may be known by different names, such as early college, concurrent enrollment, joint enrollment or dual credit programs. One study found the use of 97 different terms nationwide.

The courses are different from Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. While AP and IB courses cover college-level material, dual enrollment courses are college courses.

Students usually take these courses at their high schools, but they can also take them on a college campus, online or at another nearby high school. Some programs provide transportation to college campuses. The courses are offered in partnership with a college or university and taught by faculty from that college. Ideally, courses are offered during the standard high school day.

Academic and financial benefits

The North Carolina Career and College Promise dual enrollment program found that students in the program were 2% more likely to graduate from high school and 9% more likely to enroll in college compared with similar students who did not take dual enrollment courses.

Dual enrollment programs also provide a practical way for students and their families to save time and money. Students are able to take college courses for free or at a discounted rate while still in high school instead of paying tuition for the classes during college. The programs often include books, materials and transportation. During the 2017-18 school year, 78% of dual enrollment programs at public schools received full or partial funding from the school, district or state. Additional funding came from families, students or some other entity such as foundations and donors.

However, equity gaps exist within dual enrollment programs. Recruitment efforts that do not target equity, a lack of qualified faculty, and certain eligibility requirements – such as minimum GPAs and standardized test scores – create barriers for some students. Even when dual enrollment programs are available at their high school, Black and Hispanic students participate at lower rates than their white and Asian classmates. In addition, students whose parents had earned at least a bachelor’s degree were much more likely to take these courses than students whose parents had not earned a high school diploma.

Recruitment tool for colleges

Many colleges have experienced declining enrollments as of late, and some experts predict a looming “enrollment cliff” that some schools won’t survive. Dual enrollment programs can benefit colleges by drawing more students to their campuses, where they often re-enroll after high school.

A recent study found that 60% of 18- and 19-year-old college students took dual enrollment courses at their college while in high school.

For community colleges, high school students in dual enrollment programs now make up close to 20% of their enrollments.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found in 2016 that 75% of colleges offering dual enrollment programs viewed them as an important form of recruitment.

However, the increased likelihood that a student will enroll in the college where they took dual enrollment courses in high school has raised concerns about “undermatching.” Undermatching is a phenomenon in which high school students don’t apply to a more selective college or university even though they have the ability. One study found that when dual enrollment students stay at a two-year college where they are undermatched – instead of transferring to a more selective school – they are 33% less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Still, dual enrollment programs have proven to be both successful and popular in states across the country. If current trends continue, and states such as Massachusetts continue to push for increased funding for dual enrollment, programs will continue to grow in high schools, on college campuses and online.

The hope is that growth in dual enrollment will lead to more students graduating from college and being able to get better jobs and live longer, healthier lives.

Author Bio: Mary L. Churchill is Associate Dean of Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement at Boston University