Three Ways to Create Access Through K-12 Dual-EnrollmentMercedes Pour | Director of Early College Programs, Maine Community College System
In past five years this country has seen a sea change in the dual enrollment landscape. And to be fair, it has been a long time in coming. For much of our past, the only students who were able to access college-credit offerings while still in high school were those with the resources for prep schools, AP classes, or college-based summer programs. Today, various forms of dual enrollment opportunities and programs are enabling more of our first-generation, lower socio-economic status, and rural students to get the same early access to college that others have had for decades. Since much of the available research suggests that those with early access to college are more likely to both attend and ultimately graduate from college, dual enrollment must be a viable access tool for higher education.
Some may dismiss dual enrollment strategies as veiled attempts to boost enrollment or glean additional funding. And the reality is that while enrollment pressures may drive the growth of many dual enrollment efforts, they do not have to define them. Dual enrollment can be one of the most powerful ways to introduce a student to the realm of possibility that is higher education, provided that the experience is structured with true access in mind. Crucially, though, what I mean here by “true access” goes beyond simply earning credits. Succeeding in college isn’t just about mastering content; it’s about mastering college. Our successful students have earned credits, of course, but they have also learned to balance self-advocacy and self-control, delay gratification, and face challenges with resilience. True access, then, infuses college-level opportunities with more of the real context of college. True access is about providing opportunities and reducing barriers so more young students can develop the skills they will need to succeed college.
This broader interpretation of access is helpful in assessing three of the most common forms of dual enrollment:
1. Traditional On-Campus Dual Enrollment: High school students travel to campus to take classes with college students
Opportunities: In many ways this is the gold standard in terms of providing true access. The Early College for ME program of the Maine Community College System prioritizes this form of dual enrollment because we want our participants—who are primarily first-generation—to negotiate a campus, to advocate for themselves, and to envision a future as a college student. Giving students this on-campus experience in a small dose—one class—with a lot of structured support sets them up for success regardless of what kind of college they ultimately attend.
Barriers: Obviously, students still need the time and the resources to travel to campus at least once a week. In a diverse, rural state like Maine where many of our students have to travel some distance to campus or need to work outside of school, this form of dual enrollment may simply not be an option.
2. Online Dual Enrollment: High school students take regular college classes online
Opportunities: Online courses present incredible opportunities for busy or rural students to take a class in an interest area, expand what may be a limited schedule at a high school, or simply experience college-level dialogue. Too often, though, as a result of either institutional policy or personal inexperience, advisors counsel young students away from online options. Doing so may fail to meet the needs of students and fail to embrace the emerging possibilities of education. One way to build true access for online dual enrollment students is to require them to attend a comprehensive introduction to online, college-level learning. These short workshops can connect the students to the college, provide a safe environment for questions, and ensure that the students are ready to begin class.
Barriers: Some students will just not thrive online, and others remain on the far side of the digital divide with limited or no access to reliable technology. Online options increase access but still leave a number of high school students out.
3. Concurrent Enrollment: High school students take college classes taught by approved high school faculty within the regular high school day
Opportunities: These partnerships have proliferated in the last few years. There are even programs where high school students can earn their associate degree for little or no extra cost as they complete their high school requirements. Some of these programs make deliberate connections to the college by requiring a summer experience on campus or by having college officials visit high school classes and teachers regularly. This design would be the obvious winner if we defined access as simply being able to earn college credit; indeed many programs in technical high schools have helped thousands of young vocational students find their way to a college campus. However, despite the innovative work of groups like NACEP, all concurrent enrollment programs are not equal.
Barriers: Colleges and their high school partners need to work together to insure students in these classes really do have a collegiate experience, one that goes beyond simple content. Pacing, depth, and even classroom expectations must be at a college level in order to give these students a true sense of how they must develop as individuals in order to succeed in college. If these programs are too easy to complete, they may do more harm than good.
What About Funding?
This is its own access issue independent of what form dual enrollment takes. Many state governments, colleges, and now even the federal government have put varying levels of support into dual enrollment activity. The two programs I oversee here at the Maine Community College System take different approaches to this issue. For the limited number of students in our comprehensive college-access program, we fully fund tuition, fees, and books for a college course. However, any Maine public school student can access a community college course through our separate On Course for College program, which pays half the tuition for a course. Our colleges typically waive the balance, and students are responsible for fees and books. Unfortunately, even when the format and the funding align to promote true access, it may be the $60 book that keeps a student from participating in dual enrollment.
No one program, approach, or scholarship solves the access issue, but thoughtful dual enrollment programs can bring more of our underserved students closer to a college degree.