More High School Students Are Taking College Classes. But

Dual-enrollment programs help nearly 1.4 million high school students take college courses each year. It’s an opportunity that offers lots of proven benefits, like enabling more people to graduate from college, saving families money on higher education and helping community colleges attract more students during an era of falling enrollments. It’s even popular across the political spectrum.

But as dual enrollment grows across the country, access to the option is not distributed equally, according to a new report produced by nearly two dozen higher ed researchers and experts, with funding from the Joyce Foundation.

Called “Research Priorities for Advancing Equitable Dual Enrollment Policy and Practice,” the report highlights the fact that there is less participation in dual-enrollment programs among racial minorities, low-income students, boys, English language learners, students with disabilities and youth who are in foster care or experiencing homelessness. Additionally, access to dual-enrollment programs is less available at schools that serve more low-income students and students of color.

As the report’s title suggests, the document calls for more research to help understand why gaps in access exist in dual-enrollment programs and to determine what can be done to close them.

“We do need to get past the surface-level, blunt outcomes messaging of ‘do as much dual enrollment as possible,’” says Joel Vargas, a vice president of programs at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future who contributed to the report. “Just like a lot of things that grow and have started off as very promising efforts, getting the scale-up right is really important, so it doesn’t inadvertently become something we do that has lost its value because folks aren’t implementing it with quality and equity in mind.”

Evaluations like those called for by the report matter because ideas that sound promising for helping more high school students sign up and succeed in college courses don’t always work out. For example, a new analysis suggests that a federal pilot program intended to increase access to dual enrollment for low-income families failed to accomplish that goal. The experiment, which allowed low-income high schoolers to use Pell Grants to pay for college courses, inadvertently introduced new barriers—like financial aid paperwork—that actually decreased student participation in dual-enrollment opportunities.

Funding Better Dual-Enrollment Pathways

To figure out what does work when it comes to getting more young people on the path toward college and career success, in May the Gates Foundation announced 12 grants of about $175,000 to programs intended to help students earn an associate degree within a year of graduating from high school. In a fact sheet, the foundation noted specific concern about Black and Latino students from low-income backgrounds, who “typically receive less support transitioning between high school and college and into the workforce.”

Programs receiving the Gates funding include several focused on dual enrollment. In Arizona, for instance, an effort will help high school students earn credits toward manufacturing degrees at local community colleges. A program in Ohio will help high school students earn credits toward associate degrees in health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing, and then have the option of transferring to universities to earn bachelor’s degrees. In New York City, a program will develop a dual-enrollment guide for high schools that emphasizes personalized advising and paid work experience.

“This particular grant is supporting a lot of work that’s already underway in each of these communities,” Sara Allan, director of early learning and pathways in the U.S. at the Gates Foundation , said during a recent press conference, Inside Higher Ed reported. “The challenging thing for communities to do is to put all those together in a way that’s coherent and to design holistic programs that can take advantage of all of those opportunities. So our funding is really to create the time and space and design capacity to do that work, to plan how to scale.”

Making dual-enrollment opportunities ‘coherent’ means incorporating them into well-designed pathways that point students to degrees and credentials that have value in the labor market, Vargas argues. That’s a contrast to how these opportunities sometimes seem to spread in schools and colleges—through what Vargas calls “random acts of dual enrollment.”

“That can lead to credits that don’t transfer, that don’t lead to credentials that have value,” he says. “The devil is in the design details.”