Dual enrollment is on a roll. Enabling high school students to take college courses for credit while still enrolled in high school now comes in many forms and is altering the high school experience of millions of young Americans.
In 2016, some 2.6 million students who were enrolled in 22,000 high schools took some 4.7 million Advanced Placement (AP) exams in 40-plus subjects. Nearly three million of those exams yielded scores of 3 or higher (out of 5), which historically has represented the equivalent of having completed college level work. This is a stunning increase from 769,000 high schoolers who sat for 1.3 million AP exams in 2000.
But AP is no longer the only game in town. More than 900 American secondary schools offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate diploma program, and there are other ways to establish credit toward a college degree via tests given by Cambridge International Examinations and the College Level Examination Program (though the latter is meant to gauge credit-worthiness for learning obtained outside of school).
The fastest-growing gorilla in this jungle, however, is “dual enrollment.” These are courses offered for college credit to students who are still enrolled in high school, typically in eleventh or twelfth grade. There are no current national numbers, but in 2010-11, about 1.4 million high school pupils took part in such courses and the growth rate then averaged seven percent per year. If we assume that has continued, we can estimate that roughly 2.1 million students are engaged in some form of dual enrollment in 2016-17. That’s getting close to the number of AP participants. (Some young people, of course, do both while in high school.)
About three-quarters of dual enrollees take their college courses without leaving their schools. Their instructors may be college faculty members—generally the “adjunct” kind—dispatched to the high school for this purpose or, more often, regular high school teachers who have been approved by the college that offers the course, which is the same college that confers the credit on those who pass it.
By 2010, nearly 15,000 U.S. high schools were providing dual enrollment opportunities to their students and that number, too, has continued to rise. In some states—Indiana and Florida, for example—public high schools are required to offer at least a few such courses, either at every school or somewhere in the district. Colleges are crowding into the field, too, mainly public institutions and especially community colleges.
Why all the hustle? Motives are multiple, and not entirely harmonious. The push to confer college credit on high school students is intended by boosters to address a host of problems that plague American education at the macro level and the experience of individual pupils at the micro level. (Tucked away in there is also some collegiate self-interest.) These include:
- The boredom of young people, typically seniors as well as some juniors, who have completed their graduation requirements and are coasting as they wait for their diplomas.
- The desire of advanced students to pursue subjects that interest them in greater depth than their high school course offerings allow.
- The value for high school pupils of previewing what college classes—and sometimes college itself—are actually like, for several reasons but particularly so they’re better prepared to cope successfully with the challenges that await within the ivy gates and—it is hoped—to persevere, prosper, and complete their degrees.
- The yearning by many high school students to get a head start on college, save time and money when they get there, and—ideally—also avoid dull and overcrowded introductory courses.
- The push by policymakers to elevate academic performance in the schools, give a rocket boost to able but disadvantaged youngsters, get more of them into and through college—and save some tax dollars by minimizing course duplication and, perhaps, student remediation.
- The inability of many school systems to afford, on their own, to offer a rich array of advanced courses to their secondary pupils.
- The appetite of colleges themselves to maximize enrollments and revenues, both by teaching some students who haven’t yet matriculated and by recruiting more of those students to enroll in their institutions via familiarity and course credit.
The issue that swiftly arises, of course, is whether these “college level” courses are truly equivalent in content and rigor to those the students would otherwise take a year or two later on the campus of a postsecondary institution. Another issue is whether the instructor’s judgment that a student has passed such a course is indeed tantamount to deserving college credit. Then there’s the matter of what kind of credit they may receive: the generic kind—a random three hours toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree—or the kind that enables one to skip the college’s entry-level course in a particular subject and commence one’s campus studies in Econ or Math 202 instead of 101. (Or no credit at all, if they enroll somewhere other than the college that sponsored the course they took in high school.)
Such questions have relatively clear answers when a course taken in high school follows a standard syllabus designed by a competent team of university professors and high school teachers who specialize in the subject, and—much more importantly—when students’ learning in such a course is judged on a standard written exam that’s externally reviewed by trained individuals who employ rigorous criteria and scoring rubrics. That’s how the AP, IB, and Cambridge programs have long worked.
Such uniformity of content and evaluation does not, however, mean that all colleges confer the same sorts of credit based on those exam results. Scoring 4 on an AP chemistry exam may not mean to CalTech’s chemistry department what it means to Pasadena City College’s. Nor do academic standards and the best interests of students and taxpayers always determine such matters: a college that lets someone graduate in three years rather than four will forfeit a quarter of the tuition revenue and/or state subsidy that that student would otherwise generate for its coffers. A university that allows too many freshmen to enter Econ 202 won’t have enough “butts in seats” in Econ 101 to justify paying dozens of doctoral students the teaching assistant stipends that enable them to pursue their own degrees. Still, one can be fairly confident that the high school student who gets that 4 on the AP exam has in fact mastered something closely akin to credit-bearing college material and that some colleges will acknowledge and reward her accomplishment.
All this gets much iffier in situations where a solo high-school teacher—or adjunct instructor—devises the course syllabus, teaches it as he sees fit, is the solitary judge of student work in that class, and thus functions as the unique arbiter of whether “credit” will be conferred. And while some sort of credit may be given by the college that sponsored the course, there’s no certainty that any other institution will recognize it. The assertion that college-level content has been satisfactorily mastered rests entirely on that single teacher’s word.
Why, then, would students opt for dual enrollment rather than AP or IB—and why are so many colleges rushing to offer these courses? The answers are straightforward if not entirely noble. The AP and IB courses are seriously rigorous, which means they’re hard. Doing well in them takes a lot of work. Get a B or C in that class and it lowers one’s GPA, which matters for college admission, especially in places like Texas, where a top class rank guarantees admission to the University of Texas at Austin. Get a 1 or 2—or sometimes even a 3 or 4—on that AP exam and you still may not get credit at your college; or you may get credit but not be able to skip the 101 course. From the college’s perspective, moreover, because it doesn’t “own” that AP or IB class, the 18 students in it do nothing to boost institutional revenue or help recruit them to one’s campus.
No wonder many students and parents are clamoring for dual enrollment and no wonder many postsecondary institutions are teaming up with high schools to meet that demand. Sounds like a win-win. But where’s the quality control? How do we know these are real college courses? Who decides which students are qualified to enroll in them? Do they include the same young people who will be steered into remedial English and math when they actually reach college? Can we be confident that the kids who pass these classes based on teachers’ judgment truly deserve college credit? How do we know the teachers of those courses have the knowledge and pedagogical strategies of college professors?
A recent episode in Indiana offers a sobering example of the challenge of instructor qualifications. Because the Hoosier State requires its public high schools to offer dual-credit classes, some 3,000 individuals teach them. In an effort to ensure that those instructors have full command of the subjects that they’re teaching, a college-accrediting body—the Higher Learning Commission, originally called the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools—ruled in 2015 that they must possess master’s degrees or the equivalent in those subjects.
A master’s degree doesn’t seem like a very high bar for someone teaching a college course, but this requirement caused palpitations in the ranks of Indiana high schools—and the colleges whose courses they were offering. How, the schools wondered, could they possibly make these opportunities available to their students—and comply with the law that said they must—if their teachers couldn’t (or didn’t want to) obtain a master’s degree? Quoth the head of the Indiana Association of School Principals: “Every—literally every—principal I’ve talked to, and in some cases superintendent, has said we’ll have a very, very limited amount of teachers able to teach dual credit.”
Fast forward to December 2016: Indiana persuaded its accreditor to grant a reprieve. Hoosier teachers now have until 2022 to comply with the new requirement. One wonders how many of them will retire by then—and how many more reprieves and extensions may follow. One also wonders what’s happened to Teresa Lubbers, now Indiana’s higher-education commissioner. For many years, she was the foremost champion of educational rigor and excellence in the state senate, but now she’s praising this retreat from what seems like a fairly low bar.
Similar stories can be told in many other places, where the burgeoning dual-enrollment courses meant to yield college credit are being taught by regular high school teachers, where student performance is being judged by regular high school teachers, and where it doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s short-term interest to insist on rigor. It’s surely a good thing for high school students to enroll in higher-level classes—but some of these dual-credit offerings are college classes in name only. At a time when elevating academic standards is a major goal of education reformers, it seems ironic—perhaps outrageous is the most apt word—that we risk the erosion of such standards during the crucial transition from high school to college.