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The Time Is Now: Scale Up High School Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs

The Time Is Now: Scale Up High School Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs
The pandemic highlighted two key issues in higher education: accessibility and flexibility. Early college and dual enrollment programs can help combat these issues by getting marginalized students educated and connected to the workforce. 

The past year has disconnected high schools from colleges and universities like no other. Admissions events are conducted mostly through webinars, with faculty and staff speaking into a Zoom abyss. The stress generated on both sides is palpable, as a generation of students wonder when their education will stop being disrupted, while college admissions staff and faculty wonder whether anyone will join them on campus this fall. 

The bright spot of the spring has been developing a new dual enrollment program and teaching a synchronous remote learning class for students at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Teaching these students with my colleagues every Friday at 4:30 PM has given me the opportunity to get to know remarkable young people who are taking a class right after getting done with a work-study shift and connecting over our course material—how people develop and learn from the prenatal stage until death.

Of all the educational innovations of the past two decades to increase high school student success and college access, early college and dual enrollment programs have shown the most promise, and generated the most consistently positive results. “Early college” describes college credit programs for high school students located on a college campus taught by college faculty, while “dual enrollment programs” are more often taught at a high school  by secondary teachers. Early college and dual enrollment stand almost entirely alone on the US Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse resource list as examples of interventions that boost both high school achievement and college readiness/achievement/graduation rates.

The way that early college and dual enrollment programs succeed is elegant: Remove barriers that prevent high school students from taking college classes, then provide the academic and non-academic support systems they need to help them progress. Educational researchers have proven in many different ways the value of the early college and dual enrollment experiences for high school students. Brian An, a researcher at the University of Iowa, has published multiple quantitative studies showing the unique benefits of dual enrollment for low-income and first-generation students and families. Researcher Julie Edmunds built her experimental/control research into the warp and woof of early colleges in North Carolina, allowing her to follow those students and document their achievement over a decade. Most recently, researchers at the American Institutes for Research have calculated the return on investment for early college programs, finding 15 dollars of individual or community return for every single dollar of educational investment.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided much of the early funding for this model in the 2000s, and local philanthropy has often stepped up to invest in these efforts in the years since. However, the spread of the model has been uneven, as some states have implemented well-resourced networks of programs, while others have simply sat on the sidelines or made minimal investments. On a hopeful note, many of the states that have more recently launched early college and dual enrollment programs have developed policies based on expanding access and promoting equity.

However, the impact of early college and dual enrollment extends further. Research suggests that early college and dual enrollment can: 

1. Demystify the college experience

Well-designed dual enrollment and early college programs help students learn how to navigate the college classroom, campus and to build relationships with faculty that will help them open future doors. Building on the findings of Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack, early college and dual enrollment programs can build the help-seeking skills that students need to thrive on campus.

2. Make college more affordable

Early college programs and dual enrollment programs that do not charge students and families can help reduce time-to-degree and overall college expenses.  Many communities view college as a place to amass tuition bills and student loans, and too many family members and friends ended their college years in debt and without a degree. Early college and dual enrollment programs build students’ confidence that they can complete college on time and on budget.

3. Build student confidence in college attendance

For too many students, success in college is what they hope for, but they have no concrete evidence on which to base this trust. As researchers Michael Nakkula and Karen Foster have demonstrated, early college and dual enrollment help students see college as an expectation, not a possibility.

The current decline of high school student applicants—particularly those from low-income, first-generation and minority students—is just one reason for colleges and universities to take another look at dual enrollment and early college strategies. Students and families need more connection to higher education, and they need it earlier than the senior year scramble for college applications. Early college and dual enrollment can be key strategies in addressing our present crisis, and they build strong relationships that can flourish after the pandemic ends.

While dual enrollment and early college programs are by no means a panacea for the afflictions that are gripping high school college counseling efforts, college admissions and enrollment nationwide, they point the way towards a more hopeful future. They provide a means to reach out to families and students and connect around issues of student achievement and affordability. These initiatives offer a way to get students and families to see college as part of their future and higher education as an achievable goal. Now is the time for school districts and institutions of higher education to build, grow, deepen and renew early college and dual enrollment efforts. 

When my dual enrollment students were able to visit our campus for a tour late this spring, it was a revelation. Rather than looking at black boxes and straining to hear inflections in their voices they stood in front of me, as people. It was a reminder that we had built up a relationship this term and that these students would take what they learned in class and apply it wherever they chose to continue their education. 

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