Dual Enrollment for High Schoolers Can Expand Access to College—with Some Caveats


Jun 6, 2019

High school and college students walking together, photo by Steve Debenport/Getty Images

Photo by Steve Debenport/Getty Images

As the high school course selection period closes for next year, many students across the country are gearing up to add college courses to their time in high school. They will do this through dual enrollment courses operated by local colleges or through early colleges, special small schools that blend the high school and college experiences. Both options are designed to increase access to higher education, letting students earn a high school diploma while also earning college credits and working toward a postsecondary credential.

A number of policymakers are enthusiastic about the potential of these approaches to provide disadvantaged students early access to college. For example, the Aim Higher Act proposes to invest $250 million per year to expand dual enrollment and early college, with an emphasis on boosting access for low-income and underrepresented students. The PROSPER Act would allow the use of Title III and V funds, which support underrepresented minorities in higher education, to develop or expand access to dual or concurrent enrollment programs and early colleges.

Given their growth, it is worthwhile to understand if and how [dual enrollment] programs are worth investment of government funding and students' time.

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With or without these new funding streams, the most recent statistics (PDF) show that dual enrollment programs are increasing in number and popularity. Approximately one-third of high school students (PDF) took a course for college credit while they were in high school. Given their growth, it is worthwhile to understand if and how these programs are worth investment of government funding and students' time. Who is currently benefiting from dual enrollment programs? And in the end, are they meeting the goal of expanding access to and improving success in higher education?

Digging deeper into recent statistics (PDF) suggests that access to these programs is not currently equally distributed. Overall, there are lower levels of dual enrollment participation for minority students and students whose parents have lower levels of education. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report (PDF)had similar findings: Schools with the largest proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, smaller schools, and schools in urban areas were substantially less likely to offer these programs compared to schools with the smallest proportion of low-income students, larger schools, and schools in suburban and rural areas. Such uneven access to dual enrollment may exacerbate the existing gap in postsecondary access and success between low income and minority students and their peers.

Access is better distributed within early colleges. Because most early colleges target students who are underrepresented in college, they generally serve higher proportions (PDF) of students who are low-income, minority or the first in their family to go to college. However, there are not enough early colleges to alleviate the uneven access to college-level courses between disadvantaged students and their peers.

The good news, however, is that dual enrollment is generally effective. There are numerous studies showing positive associations between participating in dual enrollment and postsecondary enrollment and degree attainment. For example, three studies with rigorous research designs have found positive impacts of dual enrollment on attainment of a postsecondary credential ranging from 1.1 percentage points (PDF) to eight percentage points (PDF) to 17 percentage points. Early colleges are even more effective; two rigorous experimental studies have found even larger impacts on postsecondary degree attainment: 26 percentage points and 20 percentage points (PDF), in fact.

It is important to note that while students can benefit from dual enrollment programs and early colleges, pushing academically underprepared students into college courses may make them less likely (PDF) to complete college. When addressing resource allocation, policymakers might consider that many students will also need supports to be successful in those classes and to more fully realize the potential benefits of dual enrollment. Early colleges, which promote (PDF) high levels of engagement among students and school staff in addition to coupling the high expectations of college classes with substantial supports embedded in the regular school day, are a strong model that could offer guidance to ensure that expanded investments on dual enrollment are successful.

While targeted federal investments in dual enrollment programs have the potential to boost postsecondary access for students currently underrepresented in postsecondary education, thoughtful implementation could be key to ensuring those students are successful in college.

Fatih Unlu is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Julie Edmunds is a program director at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she leads a 17-year experimental study of the impact of early colleges.