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An Introduction to Dual Enrollment

American Youth Policy Forum
Dual enrollment (DE) allows high school students, including dropouts in some cases, to enroll in postsecondary education courses to earn college credit prior to high school graduation. DE is the most widely used acceleration mechanism and appears in a variety of well-known forms, such as dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and Advanced Placement.

Dual enrollment (DE) allows high school students, including dropouts in some cases, to enroll in postsecondary education courses to earn college credit prior to high school graduation. DE is the most widely used acceleration mechanism and appears in a variety of well-known forms, such dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and Advanced Placement. All but 10 states have legislation authorizing some form of dual enrollment, but, even without statewide policy, DE programs exist in all 50 states.

Dual enrollment programs differ according to the following characteristics:

  • Faculty: high school or postsecondary employees
  • Credit-granting postsecondary institution: public or private, two-year or four-year, academic or technical
  • Location: high school classroom or college campus
  • Tuition and fees: paid by student, school district, or postsecondary institution
  • Availability of support services: transportation, tutoring, and counseling

Within this section, we consider dual enrollment in three of its forms: Advanced Placement, institution-specific dual enrollment programs, and statewide dual enrollment programs.

Advanced Placement

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program provides high school students with an opportunity to engage in college-level work in their high school classrooms. Students can earn credit at postsecondary institutions based upon their scores on the standardized end-of-course examinations. Postsecondary credit varies by institution; students are typically awarded credit for scores of 4 or 5 on the AP examinations. Currently, the AP Program operates in 14,000 public and private schools in the United States. Coursework is offered in 19 different subject areas through 31 AP courses and 34 AP examinations.

Since its inception in 1955, the AP Program, which is administered by The College Board, has grown by leaps and bounds. In May 2003, over 1.5 million AP examinations were taken, twice the number in 1994. AP continues to grow as schools and school districts institute policies that allow more students access by subsidizing the cost of the exams and opening AP classes to all students. One-fourth of all public high school graduates from the class of 2004 had taken an AP course, one-fifth had taken an AP exam, and 13% earned a passing grade on that exam (Mollison, 2006, p. 35). AP represents a national standard of teaching and learning, guaranteed rigor, and is an indicator of a student’s ability to successfully complete college work.

Recent research conducted in Texas looked at the connection between AP and college graduation, attempting to answer whether participation in AP by low-income and minority students improves their likelihood of graduating from college. Texas was an excellent state for this research due to a number of efforts throughout the state to increase access to AP. Researchers used records of 8th grade students in 1994 who graduated from high school in 1998, enrolled in a Texas public college or university, and had graduated by 2003, five years from their entry point. The long-term academic records of the students were used to control for academic preparation as well as their qualification for free and reduced-price lunch.

Results showed that low-income students who had taken and passed at least one AP exam graduated from college at a higher percentage (46%) than students who took an AP course without taking the exam (21%) and students who had not participated in AP (7%). When controlling for students’ observed characteristics, such as scores on 8th grade math tests, free or reduced-price lunch status, and characteristics of their schools, such as average test scores and percentage of economically disadvantaged students, researchers found similar results, although the percentage of low-income students who passed an AP exam dropped to 26%. More detailed analysis of this student cohort shows statistically significant relationships between passing an AP exam and college graduation for all subgroups, Hispanic, White, low-income, and non-low-income students, except African American students. The lack of evidence for African American students is probably due to the small sample size within the cohort. Researchers also noted that enrolling more students in AP courses who are unable to pass or do not take the AP exams has a weaker and not statistically significant relationship to college graduation rates. Thus, this research highlights the fact that AP exam scores, not AP course taking, are the best predictor of postsecondary student outcomes (Dougherty, Mellor, and Jian, 2005).

Cliff Adelman’s recent research on college completion rates states that “less than 20 credits by the end of the first calendar year of enrollment (no matter in what term one started, whether summer, fall, winter, or spring) is a serious drag on degree completion.” Adelman (2006a) asserts that helping students get a head start on earning college credit while in high school is a positive move:

It is all the more reason to begin the transition process in high school with expanded dual enrollment programs offering true postsecondary coursework so that students enter higher education with a minimum of 6 additive credits to help them cross that 20-credit line. Six is good, 9 is better, and 12 is a guarantee of momentum.

AP is often considered, as in the evaluations included in this compendium, in conjunction with another form of dual enrollment. One such study is the data collection effort from the 1997 first-year class at University of Arizona. The study found that students with prior credit, earned either through AP or a dual enrollment program with Arizona community colleges, entered as first-year students at the University of Arizona with higher than average SAT scores and high school GPAs than their classmates without prior credit earned through either AP or dual enrollment. Students with prior credit also experienced a smaller decrease from their high school GPAs to their firstyear University of Arizona GPAs. Using a regression analysis controlling for high school GPAs and SAT scores, researchers determined that students with prior credit earned higher first-year University of Arizona GPAs (University of Arizona, 1999).1

Institution-specific dual enrollment programs

Institution-specific dual enrollment programs are offered by an institution of higher education and typically only guarantee that students will receive credit at the host postsecondary institution or at a limited number of partner institutions. These programs are typically small, serving students in school districts near the host postsecondary institution. Institution-specific dual enrollment programs offer both courses in high school classrooms and opportunities for students to enroll in courses on their campuses.

As these programs are typically meant to serve as a recruiting tool for the host postsecondary institution, there are often questions of academic rigor as students are encouraged to take “fun” courses, such as fine arts and physical education, over core academic courses, such as English and math. A number of postsecondary institutions with programs like this have been investigating the effects of DE on students’ subsequent success in higher education. Research at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) considered 1998-2000 San Francisco United School District (SFUSD) graduates with and without prior credit from CCSF. The population studied at CCSF was relatively small, approximately 14% of all CCSF students during the time period. Within the sample population, 377 students had prior credit while 2,274 did not. The results showed that students with prior credit earned a statistically significantly higher GPA (2.33) than their peers without prior credit (2.10). Students with prior credit passed 58% of the classes as compared to their peers without prior credit who only passed 53%. Yet, some students with prior credit did require remedial English and/or math. Researchers assumed that these students received college credit for taking courses during high school, such as arts, physical education, or vocational training courses that do not require the same admissions standards as academic courses (Office of Research, Planning and Grants, City College of San Francisco, 2002).

Statewide dual enrollment programs

Statewide dual enrollment programs include those mandated by state legislation instructing public postsecondary institutions to offer opportunities for qualified high school students to enroll in courses through the postsecondary institution. In some states, these mandated DE programs are often funded entirely or partially by the state and students earn credit both at their home high school and at the postsecondary institution offering the course.

Brown Lerner, J. and Brand, B. (2006). The College Ladder: Linking Secondary and Postsecondary Education for Success for All Students. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.