The Power of Dual Enrollment: The Equitable Expansion of College Access and Success

By: Luke Rhine, Deputy Assistant Secretary the Office of Career, Technical & Adult Education

Dual enrollment works. The Biden-Harris Administration is deeply committed to the use and expansion of high-quality dual enrollment programs to improve student access to rigorous coursework and equitable postsecondary opportunities. Recently, the Department of Education hosted a webinar featuring a panel of dual enrollment experts who reviewed the current state of policy, practice and research as well as the future of dual enrollment. The session also included a summary of the latest research and evidence for dual enrollment, from the recent College in High School Alliance publication, Research Priorities for Advancing Equitable Dual Enrollment Policy and Practice. Here is what experts from the field said:

What is dual enrollment? Dual enrollment (DE) is one of many terms used to describe a program that allows high school students to take a college course and earn both high school and college credit. But access to college-level classes while in high school is not just about college credit. DE can also give students a jumpstart on learning about and preparing for careers.

Why dual enrollment? Dual enrollment is an evidence-based practice that can play a powerful role in improving student outcomes. It can also be a means for students to save time and money and for them to develop a college-going identity with confidence in their ability to enroll in and be successful in higher education.

What does the research say? On average, dual enrollment has a positive impact on high school academics, high school graduation rates, college enrollment, college success, and college completion rates. Research on a New York City dual enrollment program found that it improved postsecondary attainment, reduced time to degree and increased student academic performance.

Why now? In the wake of the pandemic, postsecondary enrollment is declining at a time when the need for postsecondary credentials is increasing. A high school diploma alone is no longer a ticket to a good job. Experts predict that 70 percent of jobs will soon require some level of postsecondary education and training.

Dual enrollment is widespread and growing, but unequal. Dual enrollment is a common practice in most U.S. high schools. Approximately 88% of high schools offer dual enrollment, and 34% of U.S. students take college courses in high school. While national data is limited, the growth of DE programs at the state-level has been dramatic. For example, in Indiana, 39% of high school students graduated with DE credits in 2012, which grew to 60% in 2018.

When done well, the impact of DE improves both high school and postsecondary outcomes. Recent research on North Carolina’s CTE dual enrollment program found that students were more likely to graduate high school (2+ percentage points higher) and more likely to enroll in college (9+ percentage points higher) than their peers. These positive impacts were particularly strong for student groups that are underrepresented in postsecondary education, including students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

Unfortunately, this valuable strategy for success is often underutilized for historically marginalized learners. Dual enrollment is often less accessible at schools that serve larger proportions of lower-income communities and communities of color. Even when it is available, students from these same communities participate at lower rates. If attention is not paid to developing equitable DE policies at the local and state level, the outcomes for marginalized groups will continue to match this pattern.   

Jason Taylor, Associate Professor, Dept. of Educational Leadership and Policy, University of Utah shared it best, “there are 50 different state policies for dual enrollment and those policies shape how dual enrollment programs operate, sometimes in very standardized or unstandardized ways.”  In sum, dual enrollment comes in many shapes and sizes. For the research community, policy makers, and practitioners, it is our job to address the equity gaps in dual enrollment, so that all students can benefit from the power of dual enrollment.

As Amanda Ellis, Vice President of P-20 Policy and Programs at Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, shared, in places like Kentucky where equity is a priority, “students who are low income, first generation and are underrepresented minority students actually excel, succeed, and persist at a higher rate when they engage in dual credit.” It’s our collective role to uplift these success stories and support state policies that allow for dual enrollment to be implemented carefully and as a tool to battle systemic inequities.

Key state strategies for unlocking the potential of DE:

  1. Set a public goal for student participation and success, with a focus on equitable engagement by subgroups
  2. Support quality, oversight, and cross-sector collaboration, which includes student voice
  3. Design funding mechanisms that remove financial barriers for students
  4. Continue to review the effectiveness of policies to close dual enrollment equity gaps
  5. Identify ways DE can be used to expand academic and career focused coursework, helping to link college and career experiences and counseling

Amy Williams, Executive Director of The National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, wrapped up the webinar by describing what dual enrollment should be into the future. “By focusing on program alignment, program refinement, and innovation, I think that allows us to do things like implement best practices that are equity focused to design programs that truly advance students with some alignment and predictability. That would be my ideal 10-year plan.”

The Department is committed to strengthening and expanding dual enrollment because we know it is a strategy that transforms lives and ultimately improves outcomes for our nation’s workforce and our communities.  Dual enrollment is one of four core student-centered pillars in our Pathways Initiative. We envision reimagining high school and growing pathways to success—including both in general education courses and in career-connected courses.  The other core pathways pillars of the Pathways Initiative are work-based learning, industry-sought credentials, and career and college navigation supports. 

At the Department, we believe that the upheaval and crises the pandemic engendered present us with the urgent opportunity now to transform how our young people transition from high school, to and through college, and into rewarding careers through deliberate integration and alignment across secondary, postsecondary, and work.  The work we do today to build more equitable dual enrollment career pathways will lead our students to a bright future.

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