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Support Inside and Outside the Classroom: Ensuring Lasting Success for Dual-Credit Students

The EvoLLLution | Support Inside and Outside the Classroom: Ensuring Lasting Success for Dual-Credit Students
Dual-credit programming can’t operate with a one-size-fits-all mentality. It needs to take all students into consideration, regardless of how many credit hours they’ve taken or how committed they are to a given degree pathway.

Dual-credit courses are becoming common undertakings for high school students, and while they give students a chance to jump-start their postsecondary education, it’s not always a straightforward process from high school graduation to college education. In this interview, David Troutman discusses a recent study conducted by the University of Texas System on dual-credit classes and students in Texas, and offers his insights into better supporting this unique group of students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are dual-credit courses becoming so popular? 

David Troutman (DT): It’s been very interesting to see the rapid growth of dual-credit classes in Texas, and that growth comes down to two factors: policy and student needs. When you take recent numbers from the Texas higher education coordinating board into account, we’ve seen a 753 percent increase in dual-credit participation from 2000 to 2017. It’s pretty astonishing when you look at the sheer numbers, and it comes down to the fact that in 2006, the state passed legislation requiring all Texas high schools to implement programs that would allow students to earn up to 12 hours of college credit while in high school. That credit could be Advanced Placement (AP), international baccalaureate, dual credit and career and technical education.

So on that front, policy is impacting access and creating opportunities for students to take dual-credit courses. In 2015, the state passed legislation that opened the door even further. Prior to 2015, dual-credit students were typically high school juniors and seniors. After 2015, they began allowing freshmen and sophomores who are college ready to take dual credit during high school, too.

On the needs side, our study allowed us to better understand why high school students are increasingly motivated to take dual credit. Within our study, we held focus groups where we asked students, “Why did you take it?” We also had an online survey that more than 4,000 students completed, and they told us, in both the focus group and the online survey, that the number one factor that motivated them to take dual-credit courses was to save time and money.

A second factor that several students pointed to was that they were, frankly, bored with a high school curriculum and wanted more out of it. Other students talked about how dual credit was a strategic choice because it helped to increase their high school GPA, which is an advantage during the college application process. Finally, there is a group of students who said, “I just want to knock those courses out. I’m not really interested in the content, but I need it for credit. Let me just get it out of the way.” The combination of all these factors explains why there’s such a rapid growth of dual-credit experiences in Texas high schools.

Evo: Why would a university create programming for a student who isn’t enrolled at their institution?

DT: The benefit lies in providing an opportunity to introduce students to the college experience. Our system is made up of eight academic four-year institutions. We don’t have any community colleges within our ranks, but there’s a real opportunity for them to build a similar articulation agreement with high schools to offer dual-credit experiences. But keep in mind that there are a few community colleges where almost 80 percent of their enrollment is made up of dual-credit students. So, we have to be careful to make sure that it’s not a slippery slope where they’re trying to find additional funding and resources to maintain the community college by feeding the beast, so to speak.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that freshmen entering college with credits in hand face once they land in the college environment? 

DT: We asked students about the advantages and disadvantages associated with taking dual credit, and found that there are three different types of students who are entering college with dual credit. There are “exposure” students, who have been exposed to one or two dual-credit courses. They have about six hours of college education under their belt. There’s “involvement” students, who have between 18 to 30 hours of college credit. And then there’s another group called “immersion”, who are students entering with 60 hours or more.

So, there’s a wide range of dual-credit students: There are students who have only one hour of college credit, and students with over 90 hours. Those at the higher end of the spectrum aren’t even classified as freshmen when they matriculate; they’re classified as seniors. So, there’s a real ambiguity around what a dual-credit student is.

In Texas, we have a core curriculum. It’s 42 hours of programming that’s standardized across the state, and includes English communication and science. This core curriculum is combined with 18 hours of electives, which you would typically take once you’ve matriculated to the campus.

What we’re finding is that dual-credit students who have 60 hours in very rigorous and structured degree programs like engineering tend to have difficulty registering for courses. Specifically, engineering degree plans are very structured. You typically take 15 hours in your first semester, 16 hours in the second and so forth. The goal is to sprinkle the electives throughout the degree so that it softens your load. It’s nearly impossible for any student to take all engineering courses their first two years. What’s happening is that advisors are finding that these students have already taken all their courses through dual credit, and they’re not sustaining the level of major-related courses per semester that they need to maintain their financial aid or scholarship package. We need to figure out ways to add minors or courses that are off the degree plan in order to maintain those students’ financial aid status and link up with the sequencing of courses in that engineering program.

The other challenge dual-credit students can face is finding that the classes they need to register for are already full. For example, if a student enters with 30 hours, technically they are classified as a sophomore or second-year student. They’ve already taken freshmen courses in the previous year and have registered for sophomore classes, but a lot of the classes have already been filled by the time they’ve matriculated in the spring. It can be hard for them to find the classes they need in order to meet their financial aid status and scholarship status levels.

Dual-credit students don’t necessarily understand the difference between technical credit and academic credit, where technical credit involves courses that don’t transfer to a degree plan. They’re computer-based excel courses, or criminal justice courses or automotive skills. They’re experiential, but they don’t count towards a degree plan. For example, say that there are students in our focus group that took 18 hours of criminal justice courses, and they’ve been accepted into our institution. We don’t offer a criminal justice degree – we offer technical courses – so students need to understand there’s a difference between transferring technical hours versus hours that are applied towards a degree.

Evo: How can high schools ensure that they’re graduating students who are prepared to overcome some of these obstacles you mentioned, so that they’re not taken by surprise upon arriving at the college?

DT: The number one way to support students is to make sure they have the right advising on the types of courses they should be registering for as dual-credit courses while they’re in high school. Often students don’t understand the different pathways they need to take for a two-year associate’s degree at a community college versus a four-year bachelor’s degree at a university. There are differences in strategies in how you register and take courses for both, and students aren’t always familiar with those differences.

The El Paso Collaborative at the University of Texas El Paso is looking to resolve this problem. Twenty-five years ago, the president of the UT El Paso established a collaborative where representatives from K to 12, two- and four-year institutions and the public/private sector meet quarterly to discuss the alignment of courses not only with a degree pathway, but also how to align that degree with the workforce. They’ve established a relationship with high school and dual-credit counselors, where these counselors meet once a semester with the academic advisors from the four-year campus to better understand the various four-year degree options. This helps the high school counselors offer better advice to students, who end up having a better understanding of what path they want to go down.

As a society, we need to better understand our expectations for students. When should we expect them to declare a degree plan? I have friends who are in their thirties and they’re still struggling to figure out what kind of career they want, but we’re expecting a 15 year old to understand what types of courses to take to follow a fixed a degree plan? At what age is declaring that degree path most appropriate? That’s one of the disadvantages of coming into college with a lot of credit, because it doesn’t provide students with the opportunity to explore their options.

Evo: Before their 16th birthday, students start taking college-level courses without necessarily understanding how those courses might apply to a degree program, I can’t help wondering: What’s the value in making that decision so early?

DT: We know from the research that the advantage to allowing students to take dual-credit courses is that they’re more likely to matriculate to either a two-year or four-year institution after high school. We know that they’re more likely to graduate from high school. We know that dual credit has these positive effects.

We need to wrestle with the question of timing. What’s the right age for a student to decide what degree they want to pursue? The selling point of dual-credit courses is that they save time and money. Politically, it’s a great selling point. Our state legislators can say to families, “Yes, we are helping you save money. Students are graduating more quickly from college as a result of starting those courses in high school.” But that said, some students aren’tsaving money because they’re not applying these courses towards a degree. Or they’re saying, “I’m not ready to graduate. I’m going to stay in college a little bit longer.”

We have this notion that there’s a linear progression for college students: They go through first year, second year, third year and then receive a degree in the fourth year. We need to take a step back and think about it organically. Think about the student who takes a course which changes their perspective completely. Maybe they started as an engineering major but took an economics course and fell in love with it. They’ve decided they want to be within the field of economics, and have taken a whole different avenue. So, I feel like we need to be very careful in creating these one-size-fits-all perspectives for providing dual credit and higher education.

Evo: What are structural changes are needed to better accommodate students coming in with prior credit? 

DT: That’s the multi-billion dollar question. I think dual credit has made us look inward and find ways to be more agile in order to meet the student where they are, versus viewing higher education as a structural, four-year experience. Maybe we need to get comfortable in this ambiguity, and restructure the way we offer the courses to provide opportunity for a variety of students. Not just dual-credit students, but also transfer students. How they can succeed and still feel like they belong within the institution once they matriculate?

Evo: What can institutions do to ease the transition from high school to postsecondary for dual-credit students?

DT: The first major challenge students face stems from declaring their major so soon. They declare their major too soon and then, because they’re being rushed towards that major, they don’t have an opportunity to build a rapport or relationship with some of the faculty within their department. The other thing that they told us is that they feel they are potentially getting to their internship too quickly as well, so in order to get the right internship, they’re actually delaying their graduation so that they feel like they have the right timing.

One of the universities within our system actually created a student space for dual-credit students to deal with this issue. They created a unique space and specific advising services for these students. Creating interest groups for students with similar characteristics can be beneficial as well, along with doing a better job of making sure that we establish those relationships between the faculty members and students to make sure that they’re not lost in the shuffle.

The other thing that I found interesting in my study was talking to dual-credit Hispanic students. One of the things they said was that they really enjoyed this early college high school experience, where it’s a much smaller, more intimate classroom environment. It’s almost like a family-based, or community-based course environment. But when they matriculate to the four-year campus, they’re thrown into a large class, and they’re not used to that type of environment. That’s something we have to think about going forward. Knowing that the Hispanic population is increasing over time, we need to make sure that we go beyond this individualistic perspective of everyone’s out for their own in a large class to a more familiar, collectivistic approach to higher education.

Our study also found that if a student successfully completes at least one course—just one course—through dual credit, they are two times more likely to be retained and three times more likely to graduate than students who do not take any dual-credit courses. So, dual credit is having a positive effect on students and it’s having a positive effect in multiple ways. They talk about it as if the dual-credit system gives them a tool kit.

First, it provides them with an opportunity to understand the language of higher education. Things that are very normal to us are often foreign to new students. The concept of a bursar or registrar, for example, may not make sense to first-generation students. The dual-credit system helps them better understand the concepts that we use day to day.

Second, it helps them understand the management expectations of faculty. After all, education is a contract. There are requirements that faculty expects of students. You won’t get an extension from a university professor even though a high school teacher may have given you one.

Third, we found that exposure to dual-credit courses makes students more likely to learn similar subjects in college. Let’s say a student takes physics at the dual-credit level. Let’s say that they received a B or C. What we’re finding is that some students retake that physics course because it started them off with a solid foundation, but they want to even learn more. So, it helps them learn more about that subject area even though they may be repeating the course.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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