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Reaching More Students with a Dual-Enrollment Structure

Dual credit programs offer high school students the chance to jumpstart their college careers, give access to education to marginalized students, and involve all key stakeholders in crafting the most effective programs. 

Institutions of higher education have the opportunity to implement high-quality innovative programs in partnership with local school districts to increase student access. By doing so, all students, including populations considered more vulnerable or high-risk, are provided access to a high-quality postsecondary program, which is paramount to increasing degree persistence and completion. In the last ten years, as reported in the recent Texas Public Higher Education Almanac, the State of Texas has witnessed over a 100% increase in dual credit enrollment in public institutions of higher education.

Specifically, South Texas College in collaboration with partnering school districts has implemented a number of successful initiatives. A high-quality postsecondary program offered by South Texas College for over twenty years is the dual credit program, which is focused on college readiness and completion; thus, opening doors for eligible high school students to obtain college-level hours and/or a credential. South Texas College currently collaborates with 21 school districts around the Hidalgo and Starr Counties, which serve over 16,000 eligible high school students on an annual basis. To offer some insight on the success of the dual credit programs, in May 2020, South Texas College had the largest dual credit graduating class, with 1,984 students earning their credential prior to graduating from high school. 

In conjunction with college access, students need the necessary support from postsecondary programs to persist and complete their degrees. College support is essential, and it goes beyond providing an opportunity for a student to enroll in a course. Rather, it encompasses student support such as advising, access to on-campus resources such as computer labs, tutoring and library services, transfer and counseling services, to name a few. South Texas College is committed to providing all dual credit students with a strong support system; hence, it waives tuition and provides students support at no additional cost. Consequently, institutions that implement a high-quality postsecondary program that provides access and support to all students are demonstrating their commitment to successfully transforming their region. 

Offering dual credit programs

The South Texas College dual credit programs vision has been to provide high school students from Hidalgo and Starr Counties the opportunity to expand their educational experience by enrolling in college-level courses leading towards a credential. As an advocate for higher education, South Texas College dual credit programs are instrumental in transforming the quality of life for all students, as they narrow the achievement gap and increase enrollment rates, thus transforming regional prosperity. Many students in our region are first-generation high school and college graduates. The opportunity for them to learn about college and earn a college credential while in high school has an immense impact. It increases their potential to attaining a salaried career, motivates them to continue their college education, and allows them to be a role model for their family and younger siblings. As a result, a more educated and credentialed region can improve its own economic mobility, which has been true for the Rio Grande Valley. 

Higher education institutions and/or school districts may not immediately experience the impact of a dual credit program, as it requires many components to build a solid foundation. Both entities must have the same goals in mind: regional prosperity and student success. It is through this commitment and support from essential stakeholders that a dual credit program can positively impact the students it serves. As a former dual credit student, and now as Dean of the Dual Credit Programs at South Texas College, I can attest to the college’s trajectory on how a dual credit program serves as a vehicle for regional prosperity. With this being said, since inception, the South Texas College dual credit programs have served over 115,000 students, thus leading to an increase in graduation completion rates, matriculation of dual credit graduate seniors to higher education, and persistence at the college. 

Specifically, South Texas College has utilized dual credit programs as a key strategy to accelerate college readiness and completion for high school students. One way South Texas College does this is by waiving tuition, providing enrollment and academic support, and offering four program pathway options for eligible high school students enrolled with partnering school districts. These pathway options are critical as they assist students in selecting the degree that best aligns with their future academic and career endeavors. In order for any dual credit program to succeed, institutions must have a successful collaboration with school districts and workforce industries and continuously assess their dual credit offerings to provide a high-quality program that meets the needs of all students. 

Building an infrastructure to support scale

As the saying goes, “It takes a village”, and this is truly evident for South Texas College in building and sustaining the infrastructure to support and scale their dual credit programs. To establish a high-quality program, the development and implementation may be a daunting undertaking for any institution; however, it is not impossible. A major component of developing a dual credit program is having equitable support from the college’s board of trustees and administration at the forefront; its members serve as advocates for student success and can relay this mission to key stakeholders. In return, these key stakeholders guide the institution towards establishing and approving policies that determine the structure and processes in place to which participating stakeholders will adhere in the best interest of all students. 

Accordingly, a dual credit program’s foundation needs to be developed upon the basis of student success, which encompasses recruitment, enrollment, scheduling, faculty, student academic support, and professional development. From an institutional perspective, determining funding and staffing needs is another critical component as a program’s infrastructure will only be successful with sufficient support from its college’s board of trustees and administration. Furthermore, internal collaboration is central amongst the various college divisions and departments to have the necessary support from initial development through the implementation of any college program. And it is no different when establishing a dual credit program. 

Another key area vital to any dual credit program is partnerships. Partnerships are established with local school districts and other key stakeholders because, through their support, a dual credit program will develop and flourish within their high school campuses and the region. Institutions must establish an agreement with local school districts specifying the terms of their partnership with the students’ best interest in mind. Additionally, for continuous improvement in scaling a program, evaluation methods need to be conducted to review and assess the dual credit program’s direction and future. Through collaboration with stakeholders, higher education can establish a dual credit program that promotes a college-going culture and supports a better quality of life for all students. 

The advice I would share with college leaders seeking to expand their dual credit programs within their own communities is to build strong, solid partnerships and to conduct a comprehensive review of their program to improve college-readiness and prepare students both academically and for the workforce. South Texas College regularly assesses the community’s needs, which has been instrumental to scaling its dual credit program. By identifying and understanding the region we serve, South Texas College has worked for over twenty years to broaden the horizon for students by creating a model to earn college credit towards a college credential while in high school. As a result of the college’s dual credit efforts and commitment, participation rates increased from 8 students in 1997 to over 16,000 students annually. 

As a dual credit program evolves, college leaders need to remain receptive to feedback from stakeholders while not losing sight of their programs’ vision and goals and most importantly, their target audience –high school students. Through continuous program evaluation and dialogue with its school district partners, South Texas College dual credit programs have expanded its offerings to four distinct program options, which are designed to provide a head start on college for all eligible high school students in the Hidalgo and Starr Counties. Additionally, through the involvement of key stakeholders, South Texas College regularly assesses program pathway options in order to expand the program opportunities to meet the regional workforce demands. 

Dual credit programming allows higher education to provide exceptional support to thousands of students, thus positively impacting their lives and their families’ lives through educational endeavors. For many of our South Texas College students, dual credit is the key to changing their lives as they are breaking barriers and becoming the first in their families to achieve a college degree. Thus, as college leaders, we can’t overlook community needs and embrace the impact dual credit has on a region by improving graduation rates and labor market outcomes.  

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