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Dual Enrollment as a Bridge to Higher Education: A Research-Driven Perspective

Dual enrollment programs allow secondary students to enroll in college courses and receive higher education credit prior to graduating high school. Successful dual enrollment programs provide academic, social, and financial benefits to both high school students and postsecondary institutions by: increasing college readiness, improving the college participation rates of at-risk students, reducing the cost of students’ college education by lessening their required credit load, and establishing a robust pipeline of college-ready students.

Dual enrollment programs most commonly fall under one of three models:

  • Simple Dual Enrollment: Students earn either high school or college credit through coursework, but do not earn both for a single course.
  • Dual Credit: Students earn both high school and college credit for the same course.
  • Concurrent Enrollment: A type of Dual Credit program whereby high school students take college‐credit‐bearing courses taught by college approved high school teachers on their high school campus.

Why Dual Enrollment is on the Rise

The number of students participating in dual enrollment programs has considerably increased in recent years, with an average annual growth rate of over 7%, according to surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.  Many states, such as Minnesota and Florida, have witnessed even faster growth due the innovative nature of their college pathway programs.

Executive Director for the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) Adam Lowe attributes this expansion to “a variety of trends related to college and career readiness, including: increased high school graduation requirements and the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the integration and transformation of career and technical education, early accelerated interventions to reduce college remediation rates & increase college completion rates, and new models of high school accountability that include dual and concurrent enrollment courses.”

With an increased interest in dual enrollment comes the provision of access to higher education for many traditionally under-served populations, such as low-income and at-risk students.

Currently serving as the Associate Vice President for Academic Services at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), Dr. Sharon Robertson finds that, “Dual enrollment gives students a low-cost taste of college. In addition to encouraging some students to try college who would not otherwise have considered higher education, dual enrollment gives students an opportunity to compare the expectations of college courses with those of their high school courses.”

Adam Lowe agrees, noting that the enhanced focus on college and career readiness is impacting the mission of NACEP. Stated Lowe in an interview with Hanover Research, “In many places throughout the country, we are seeing a shift in the types of students participating in concurrent enrollment. This is due partly to the changing demographics of our high school-aged population, but also to an increased emphasis by programs and policy-makers on serving a broader range of students. Many programs and states are eliminating artificial barriers that limit participation to only the highest achieving students, and are focusing instead on providing students who have college potential with an early college experience to increase their readiness for college.”
Key Challenges of Implementation

Despite its many benefits, dual enrollment is not without its challenges, academic rigor chief among them.

Dr. Robertson is quick to acknowledge the challenges to redirecting students from their current academic or vocational path to dual enrollment college courses, if their academic skills are not meeting basic reading and math standards.

Another challenge to dual enrollment is the quality of classes taught by high school instructors. The NACEP was established in 1999 in response to the dramatic increase in concurrent enrollment courses throughout the country. The organization’s founders were initially concerned with the quality of college classes taught by high school instructors (called concurrent enrollment). As the only accrediting body for concurrent enrollment, NACEP’s accreditation is a mark of assurance that students are earning college credit for college courses. Institutions considering accreditation typically embark on a programmatic self-study review for at least one year prior to applying. Accreditation is awarded to programs after a comprehensive peer review by a team of experienced representatives of NACEP-accredited concurrent enrollment partnerships. As of fall 2014, NACEP accredited 92 concurrent enrollment partnership programs.

While accrediting bodies such as the NACEP address the need for academic rigor, an under-discussed challenge for those offering dual enrollment programming is the logistical puzzle faced by higher education administrators.

Discussing the challenges in the coordination and implementation of dual enrollment, Dr. Robertson finds that “Coordinating dual enrollment is an institution-wide effort. It begins with the strategic plan and the vision of the President, who works with the superintendents of local school systems.  At NOVA, our Director of Dual Enrollment, who manages the day-to-day operations of these programs across multiple locations, and the Dual Enrollment Coordinator, report to a campus provost who provides leadership for outreach efforts. All campus provosts and deans are involved as they sponsor classes, hire faculty and assure that the classes truly reflect NOVA course content and rigor. Someone like me interprets and helps the College conform to academic policies at the state and local level. In addition, an individual fully devoted to academic compliance has responsibility for reporting off-campus sites to our accrediting body (SACSCOC).”

To a degree, state legislatures have worked to acknowledge these difficulties. For example, in Virginia, the legislature passed HB 1184 in February of 2012 which requires local school boards and community colleges to develop agreements allowing high school students to complete an associate’s degree or a one-year Uniform Certificate of General Studies from a community college concurrent with a high school diploma.

Programs involving dual enrollment in high school and college have become effective tools for preparing high school students for college success, decreasing the overall cost of attaining a college degree, and developing effective “pipelines” of college ready students for participating colleges. However, increased interest in these programs is often straining the system and raising questions about maintaining academic rigor and relevant course offerings – questions worth addressing as society increasingly seeks an answer to adequately preparing students for college and careers.
Best Practices Research on Dual Enrollment

For more information on dual enrollment, including reviews of models through which students can pursue dual high school and college enrollment and an evaluation of national trends, common practices, benefits, and challenges related to each model, download our report Dual Enrollment: Models, Practices, and Trends.

The Key Findings of this report include:

  • Dual enrollment programs are most commonly found at two‐year institutions. Over 70 % of students who took college courses through dual enrollment programs used a two‐year institution, and programs are available through 96 % of two‐year institutions. These institutions often accept applicants at different levels of achievement, ranging from grades 9 to 12.
  • Nonprofit four‐year institutions, in comparison, hold a fairly small share of the dual enrollment market. Only 7 % of students who took college courses through a dual enrollment program used a nonprofit four‐year institution, and only 35 % of such institutions offer dual enrollment. These programs are mostly limited to students in grades 11 and 12.
  • Nonprofit four‐year institutions are more likely to deliver college‐credit courses on college campuses than on high school campuses. Less than half of nonprofit four‐year institutions offer high school campus delivery. Among those that offer high school campus delivery, about half rely on high school instructors to teach the courses. On the other hand, almost all two‐year institutions offer delivery on high school campuses and most use a mixture of high school and college instructors.
  • College High Schools are an additional specialized application of dual enrollment. In this model, high school and college coursework are blended into a single, comprehensive, accelerated curriculum. Specific models of College High Schools include:
    • Early College High School: Enables high school students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.
    • Middle College High School: Enables high school students to earn both a high school diploma and college credit, but not a higher education award.

To download a free copy of the report Dual Enrollment: Models, Practices, and Trends, complete the form below. 


Article contributors:

AdamAdam Lowe, Executive Director of NACEP

Adam is the first Executive Director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP), helping to steer a previously all-volunteer professional organization through a time of growth and transition.  For the decade prior to joining NACEP, he was an education policy consultant for a variety of universities, nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies in Washington, D.C. and Indiana.  In Indiana he assisted in launching new, innovative high schools for the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL) at the University of Indianapolis with funding from the Gates Foundation.  His previous consulting contracts include the University System of Georgia, Indiana Department of Education, The Mind Trust, City of Indianapolis, Ball State University, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the former D.C. State Education Office.  He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from Indiana University and resides in Chapel Hill, N.C.

sharonDr. Sharon N. (Sheri) Robertson, Associate Vice President for Academic Services at Northern Virginia Community College

Dr. Sharon (Sheri) Robertson serves as the Associate Vice President for Academic Services at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and has over 32 years’ experience in Higher Education. NOVA is the largest educational institution in Virginia and the second-largest community college in the United States, comprised of more than 75,000 students and 2,600 faculty and staff members. Spending most of her career at NOVA, Dr. Robertson focuses on academic policy supporting multiple initiatives from vetting transfer, advanced standing and dual enrollment policies; curriculum development at any of NOVA’s six campuses; assuring compliance with NOVA, Virginia Community College System, and SACSCOC policies; and generally providing behind-the-scenes support. Sheri holds a PhD from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.


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