Published on 2016/03/15
The EvoLLLution | Looking to High Schools: What It Takes To Succeed In The K-12 Space
Dual and concurrent enrollment programs are hugely beneficial for high school students but also offer a number of advantages to institutions, but only if the programs themselves are managed well.

While many universities are creating access for the adult demographic in an effort to buttress enrollment numbers, few have explored improving access for students still in high school. What the K-12 market may lack in numbers it more than makes up for in opportunity, but institutions need to properly manage and support their dual-enrollment and concurrent enrollment programs to really see the benefits. In this interview, Steven VandenAvond shares his thoughts on what it takes to really stand out in the K-12 space and reflects on the benefits of strong K-12 programming for both students and institutions.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do universities benefit from opening up access to postsecondary programming for K-12 students?

Steven VandenAvond (SV): Some universities use K-12 programming as a revenue generator. They’re producing student credit hours—the only difference is that these bona fide university students happen to be taking the course while they’re still in high school. In most programs, students are still paying full tuition so the university gains revenue from them. Universities that generate large amounts of tuition revenue from K-12 programming tend to be in states that allow them to charge students or families dual and concurrent enrollment tuition rates.

In addition, if the university is active enough in creating access to dual or concurrent enrollment for K-12 students, they can increase their numbers of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) enrollments.

From my perspective, one of the biggest benefits of K-12 programming for the university is engagement. Universities get a chance to engage high school students before they begin their postsecondary application process, often before the students have made a decision about where they’re going to go to college. It’s a chance for colleges and universities to reach out to students and let them know what kind of experience they offer.

Last—but certainly not least—creating K-12 access allows universities to serve their communities by helping students with the very real problem of higher education costs. The cost of public higher education is increasing and a large part of that is caused by the defunding of higher education by state governments. This is coupled with the fact that the costs of running universities are increasing with new facilities that students are demanding, operational costs and more. That gap has to be made up somewhere and often it’s being made up by increased tuition rates. Most dual and concurrent enrollment programs help high school students reduce the cost of credit acquisition by providing reduced tuition rates. Students are saving money on courses and if they accumulate enough credits—and many students do—they might be able to knock off a semester or two or more of their college experience when they end up enrolling.

Evo: How do higher education leaders launch these kinds of programs?

SV: Most institutions start out with some standalone courses to give a high school student a jump start on their college education with course material that they can actually manage. You won’t find a lot of concurrent and dual enrollment options for advanced physics or other upper division courses but you do see a lot of courses in composition and entry-level calculus, the courses that your ordinary freshmen in college would tend to take.

Institutions really have to have a pretty close collaboration with their local community and high school districts to get a successful K-12 program started. A lot of concurrent enrollment programs have reached far beyond their geographical areas even in the different states, which requires at least four factors. First, the institution has to have academic departments that are willing to engage in this type of educational outreach and not every academic department is. The faculty controls the curriculum at most public higher education institutions and most institutions overall. Second, for a concurrent enrollment offering, high schools have to have a teacher who’s qualified to teach on behalf of the universities. Concurrent enrollment, to my mind, is a little different than the old dual enrollment model where high school students come to a university and take a course alongside college students, face-to-face or online. Concurrent enrollment is when universities vet high school teachers to teach as an adjunct faculty member on behalf of the university in the high school. The third factor is that the university needs to have students in the high school who meet the criteria to enroll in the university as non-degree seeking students. A student with extremely low GPA in high school obviously will not be prepared to take a college-level course, even from a familiar teacher and in a familiar setting. Fourth, the district has to have a high school that is willing to pay the tuition on behalf of the students or families who are willing and able to pay the cost of tuition. You have to have a funding source because the money has to come from somewhere to pay for the cost of tuition.

Universities trying to start a concurrent enrollment program need all four of these factors to come together. When that happens, the university is ready to to launch their program.

Evo: What are some of the differences between managing a program for K-12 students and managing a standard university program?

SV: The differences between K-12 programs and traditional programs are seen in the funding models, the credits—which count both as high school and university credits—and, obviously, the students. There’s always this negotiation around what kind of course is it in high school and whether it has different rules. After all, higher education institutions have specific rules and expectations around student behavior and performance. Successful programs have approached this by taking the perspective that it’s really a university course that students are engaging in and so they have to meet all the performance and behavioral standards of a university course.

The vetting process for students is a little bit different too. For a traditional on-campus program the students are vetted through the application process, which means they’re providing lots of information about their academic history that they can use to be accepted to the university. In the case of concurrent and dual enrollment, students are classified as non-degree seeking and often the standards for non-degree seeking students are not quite as rigorous.

Evo: How have you overcome these obstacles in the past?

SV: One, you have to have at least one dedicated staff member or division focused on this effort. It needs to be centralized. It can’t be managed department-by-department and handled as a tacked-on part of someone’s job when they have time because it will fail.

High school students can get themselves into a pickle if they’re either in a course that they don’t belong in because they’re not prepared, or if they’re not taking it seriously enough, because that grade will end up on a permanent university transcript. On the other side of the coin, you could get high school students who could really benefit from these options but they’re not taking advantage of it because they don’t understand the program well enough.

A dedicated staff member is needed because someone has to educate high school administrators, teachers and students about what the program is and then follow up and visit the high schools during the time of enrollment to make sure everyone understands the rules of the game and the implications of taking the course.

Evo: What are a few of the benefits K-12 students gain from having access to dual or concurrent enrollment programs offered by a college or university?

SV: The cost and time to degree is a huge benefit for students. They often pay a reduced tuition rate and then, since they’re going to spend less time in college, they receive additional savings down the line in terms of full-price tuition, room, board and opportunity costs.

Another benefit for students is that participating in a dual or concurrent enrollment program is a great mechanism for addressing the transition to college. We have all kinds of programs to improve the transition to college for first-year students—we make sure that they’re paired up with the right roommate and they’re engaged in some student activities and that we have early alert systems for recognizing when students are about to disengage before it’s too late—but truth be told there are still a number of students who just slip through the cracks and end up being unable to make that transition from high school to college. We also know that these transition challenges are not because of the academic rigor, but because first-year, traditional-age students are adapting to a number of changes happening very quickly. Taking one of those transition pieces off the plate of a high school graduate is a benefit of a program like this because, if they take a concurrent or a dual enrollment class while they’re still in high school, they get used to the academic rigor of the college level and it’s one less thing they have to adjust to once they reach college.

Third, the assessment that takes place in a concurrent or dual enrollment program is massively beneficial for students. There are lots of ways students can gain college credit: they can do AP, they can test out of courses through displays of prior knowledge. Students who don’t do well on these high-stakes standardized exams may have test anxiety. To me, it’s a much better way of assessing what a student knows and whether they’ve met the competencies or their learning outcomes for a college course. Earing credit through that approach to assessment is a more authentic way to demonstrate what they know. College credit earned through high school concurrent enrollment is a much more authentic way of assessing what they know than taking a high-stakes exam to test out of a course.

Finally, students earn credit for the course at the time of completion. Unlike things like AP where they take the exam and they get a score and then hope the institution they want to attend accepts their AP credit as a legitimate transfer, they have bona fide university credit at the time that they complete the course. One obstacle is, in some states, ensuring that a concurrent enrollment course will transfer from one public institution to another but in most states they worked that issue out, allowing students to easily transfer their credits.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what it takes for universities to really succeed in the K-12 space?

SV: I don’t think you can succeed in the K-12 space by doing it as an add-on. You have to have a department whose sole purpose is to extend the resources of the university beyond the limits of the campus. Institutions have to go all in or not at all here.

Additionally, there needs to be a really healthy relationship between the university and its local school districts, there has to be a clear communication channel back and forth and a level of mutual trust between the high school districts and the university.

Finally, universities should not think of K-12 offerings primarily as a revenue generating mechanism because that’s really not the goal of the programs. The goal of the programs is to provide students with an avenue for reducing the cost of degree and the time to degree and I think if you keep that focus as a university you’re going to be much more successful than if you view it as being an additional revenue stream.

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Key Takeaways

  • While universities can generate revenue from K-12 programs, their real benefit comes in creating a level of familiarity with prospective high school graduates and improving postsecondary access for students in their communities.
  • A successful K-12 program requires a team specifically focused on managing the unique aspects of these offerings.