Dual Enrollment Courses -- Up From Obscurity

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007; 12:12 PM

I have lost track of how many articles and columns I have written about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, the college-level high school courses whose rapid growth have been the most beneficial development in secondary education in the last two decades. At the same time, sadly, I have overlooked another college-level offering, the dual enrollment course. These college courses taken by high schoolers have been hard to analyze because they come in so many varieties and because so little research has been done on their effects.

Their status as a neglected cousin of AP and IB is beginning to change, however. National organizations are promoting their expansion, and, for the first time, scholars are assessing their impact. The most interesting research so far came out just last week. The title is pretty dull -- "The Postsecondary Achievement of Participants in Dual Enrollment: An Analysis of Student Outcomes in Two States," -- but the information produced for the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Minnesota is exciting.

Dual enrollment courses are usually community college or four-year college courses taken by high school students, either at the college or at their high schools with instructors paid by, or at least supervised by, the college. Looking at the records of 299,685 dual enrollment students in Florida, the researchers found that taking dual enrollment courses correlated to higher rates of high school graduation, enrollment in two-year and four-year colleges and academic performance in college. Students who took dual enrollment courses while enrolled in Florida high schools had higher college grade point averages and more college credits three years after high school graduation than similar students who had not done dual enrollment.

A review of the records of 2,303 New York students found those in the "College Now" dual enrollment program were more likely to pursue a bachelor's degree and have better college grades their first semester than students of similar backgrounds who did not do dual enrollment.

Despite the evidence that these college courses -- like AP and IB -- give high school students a taste of college rigor that can bring college success, the researchers reported that many students are being denied a chance to take them. The ill-considered limits on high schoolers who want to take college-level courses is also a big problem for AP, and suggests that most of our high school administrators and many state education officials are in dire need of an attitude adjustment.

Report authors Melinda Mechur Karp, Juan Carlos Calcagno, Katherine L. Hughes, Dong Wook Jeong and Thomas R. Bailey are with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. They found that students are often barred from credit-earning dual enrollment college courses if they do not maintain a certain high school grade point average or cannot pass a placement test.

In Florida, they say, a high school student must have an unweighted 3.0 average in high school and pass a placement test to qualify for dual enrollment, unless the college course is technical or vocational. The colleges in New York City that oversee dual enrollment courses have similar bans on students who do not pass placement tests. Karp told me a federal survey concluded that about 85 percent of colleges with dual enrollment courses restrict access in this way.

There are good reasons for colleges to keep college students -- repeat, college students -- out of their for-credit courses until they are ready. It remains to be seen whether their qualification rules are reasonable. I have heard some complaints about them and plan to look into the issue.

I think it makes much less sense for colleges to keep motivated high school students out of college-level courses. The high schoolers who give these courses a try may indeed fail them, but after interviewing AP and IB students for the last 26 years, I have yet to find anyone who thinks that struggling in a college level course in high school is anything but a beneficial experience. The alternative to an AP or IB course is often a regular course designed in many ways to keep students and parents happy with good grades for little work. That is not the way to prepare students for the foot-high reading lists and two-hour exams they find when they get to college.

For a long time, high schools have routinely prohibited students from taking AP courses unless they have a strong B average or a teacher's recommendation. Research by the College Board, based on the strong PSAT scores of many of those average B and C students, show that many would be capable of doing well in AP courses if the barriers were lifted. School districts in such places as Fairfax County, Va., and Guilford County, N.C., have discovered that if AP courses are opened to all students regardless of their academic records, many newcomers would do well on the AP exams when given enough extra time and encouragement.

Mindful of the similar impediments to getting into dual enrollment courses, the authors of the report urge a loosening of restrictive eligibility requirements. Federal data show that despite recent growth, the number of schools that offer dual enrollment and the number of students who take the courses lag behind AP, which only reaches about 25 percent of high school students. The authors conclude that many more students would benefit from the opportunity if given a chance.

Gillian B. Thorne, a national activist on dual enrollment and director of the Early College Experience Program at the University of Connecticut, endorsed the report's recommendation. She said her program lets high schools decide who takes the college courses. "We set absolutely no threshold," she said.

It would be useful to hear from readers how dual enrollment eligibility works in their high schools. I can't tell how much of a problem the grade point and placement test restrictions are until I have more information. As the report authors say, there is very little useful data. Their research is a good start, but we have a long way to go.

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