Legislation in 22 states allows qualified high school students to enroll simultaneously in high school and college courses. Known as dual enrollment, the law varies in its details from state to state, but all versions contain similar core elements. This legislation supports a student’s need to move beyond the 12th-grade curriculum while still enrolled in high school, and thus, by inference, provides a justification for sequential content acceleration throughout K–12. It also surfaces several important, though controversial, issues: shifting control for educational decisions, awarding course credit and grades, and reallocating tax dollars for tuition. Factors in developing a student’s K–16 seamless transition are considered.
Acceleration is a well-researched, desirable option that improves achievement for gifted students (Benbow & Lupinski, 1996). Yet, it is rarely a solution chosen by schools (Jones & Southern, 1989). Acceleration, particularly that which teaches content beyond the grade level, can produce problems. Content acceleration creates a compounding dilemma for schools, often reflected in the educator’s query that is familiar to experienced parents: If we let your child learn the next grade level curriculum now, what will we teach him or her next year?
The question implies that content acceleration, if allowed to continue in a sequential, systematic manner, would inevitably result in a 12th grader (or younger) who has mastered the entire curriculum available before it is time to graduate. Neither teacher nor parent finds tolerable the image of a 12th grader, or even occasionally a younger student, sitting through a year of school with nothing to learn. To insure that the curriculum lasts, the more acceptable remedy has been to dole it out at a pace too slow for bright students.
For the few students who enjoy the option of K–12 sequential acceleration, their eventual choice is often to graduate early or, when district policies prevent that, simply to leave school without a diploma—statistically becoming a drop out. Both options result in an undesirable loss of revenue to schools. Moreover, students lose access to high school leadership and social activities, and, if they enter college at an early age, the security of home is exchanged for the adult responsibilities and freedoms inherent in college life.
Now there is an alternative. Starting in the mid-1980s, states passed legislation that guarantees qualified students access to college courses, often at no cost to the student, while they concurrently enroll in high school. Students gain new curricular challenges by accelerating beyond the 12th-grade curriculum, thus matching both high school- and college-level courses to their individualized needs. Moreover, this option allows them to pursue their high school activities, retain their identity with home and school, and provide tax-supported revenue for the schools. Most important, the law in many states removes an historical inequity that predicated accelerated (college) course enrollment on a family’s ability to pay tuition. But, for all the positive experiences available to students, the law also has its detractors.
Common Elements of Dual Enrollment
Twenty-two states report legislation that allows qualified students to enroll simultaneously in high school and college courses, and approximately 10 more identify similar options offered through permissive language in local board policy and individual institutions (Education Commission of the States, 1998; Oregon University Systems, 1998). Referred to as either Post-Secondary Options (PSO) or Dual Enrollment (DE) legislation, students enroll in college courses that are held on the college campus or occasionally take place within the high school. And, as institutions of higher education increasingly offer courses through various distance learning technologies, dual enrollment becomes a realistic option for rural students.
The Education Commission of the States (1998) identified 12 states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) that have comprehensive programs: Students pay little or no tuition, earn both high school and college credit, and encounter few course restrictions. Iowa has legislated a moderately comprehensive program that is provided at no cost to students unless they do not successfully complete the course, sets limits on tuition fees, and restricts criteria of eligible courses and credit. More limited programs are offered in six states (Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, and North Dakota): Students pay tuition, and restrictions are set on eligible courses and credit. New state law is mandated in Nevada and Oklahoma. Oregon offers college courses in the high school. South Dakota offers permissive language that allows districts the choice of covering tuition costs.
While the specifics of each state’s law vary, they all share some common elements (Education Commission of the States, 1998; Oregon University System, 1998):
Most states authorize dual enrollment for both 11th and 12th grade students who have no comparable course available in their high school. Oregon’s guidelines recommend limiting participation to academically well-qualified 12th graders, while Indiana and Iowa permit younger students to enroll, although most case-by-case exceptions require the approval of the local district. A few states require demonstration of additional competencies, including passing the state’s high school proficiency exam (Michigan), passing standardized tests (Washington), or attaining a minimum high school GPA or the recommendation of school personnel (Massachusetts).
Academic Credit for College Course
All states agree that dual-enrolled high school students can earn high school credit when they complete a college course. In many states, the university can also award college credit retroactively if the student, following high school graduation, enrolls at that university. Ten states (Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, and Washington) stipulate that the student can earn both high school and college credit immediately upon completion of the course; some states give students the choice of receiving credit from one or both institutions. States also differ on the ratio of college to high school courses allowed: Colorado limits paid tuition courses to two college courses per semester, Michigan requires enrollment in a minimum of one high school course per semester, and Minnesota permits full-time college attendance to dual-enrolled students.
In several states, the state board of education sets a ratio for equating college credit (determined by instructional hours) to high school credit (determined by school year). For example, Washington’s recommended and approved ratio is to award one high school credit per five quarter credits or three semester college credits earned. It is more usual for states not to specify language, either through legislation or policy, on equating credit, thus granting to each local district the responsibility of assigning credit for college courses. It is not uncommon for a year’s college course, regardless of credit allotment, to earn one high school credit.
While high school credit is always awarded for completing a college course, sometimes college credit is not. In some states, the source of funding—who pays the tuition—determines if the dual-enrolled student receives college credit after he or she completes the college course requirements.
Control of Decision to Dual Enroll
The law guarantees eligible high school students the right to enroll in college courses. A few states have inserted language that makes eligibility contingent on school district approval, but in most cases, the final authority rests with the student. Granting this control to the student (and family) represents a major shift in educational decision making. In several states (Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington), the law designates that schools should assist students through a counseling and advising role. But, it is the student, assuming eligibility requirements are met, who makes the final decision to dual enroll, and who, therefore, controls decisions about content acceleration (for 11th and 12th grade).
And this power multiplies: A student’s decision to enroll in college triggers new monetary consequences in districts. Since these students are enrolled in high school, the legislation in many states directs that a state’s K–12 revenues should continue to be allocated to the district, but now must (in some states) be used to pay for the most challenging course available— even when provided by an educational institution outside the school district.
College Tuition Payment
States’ laws vary, but all stipulate that college tuition fees shall be paid either by families or by state tax dollars allocated for K–12 education. When the legislative language permits, but does not require, districts to cover the costs of tuition (South Dakota), most districts choose not to pay the tuition.
For schools, dual enrollment represents a shift in school spending practices for bright students. Previously, districts received the state’s monies allocated for K–12 education and retained full authority for deciding how it should be spent. Now, legislators have determined that monies allocated to K–12 students should purchase the curriculum and instruction most appropriate for bright (high school) students’ learning. Dual enrollment became a legislative vehicle intended to prod educational reforms: It could raise academic standards, make efficient use of existing educational institutions, and require no additional tax dollars.
Through this legislation, a student’s decision to dual enroll ends the long-held practice that revenues allocated to a district automatically stay within the district. Now, a lack of accelerated courses (for 11th and 12th graders) could reduce rather than insure the continuation of revenue. Thus, districts often view dual enrollment as a loss of control over both budget and curricular decisions, and a potential loss of revenue: K–12 dollars, previously under their control, must now pay the student’s higher education tuition fees. Since money and control matter, the process called dual enrollment can produce some contentious issues.
The opportunities afforded students through dual enrollment reflect the nation’s goals for educational reform. In mastering curricula beyond the high school, these students document their ability to engage in high-level learning and establish challenging curriculum standards, both key recommendations in the report on National Excellence (Ross, 1994). With fewer classroom hours, the students make effective use of learning time, a recommendation of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1995). Further, parents, consistently identified as key to increasing student achievement, are often eager advocates.
Despite its obvious advantages, the path to dual enrollment is not yet smooth, obvious, or clearly marked. Students must be alert for potential hurdles and problems.
Timely Notification and Academic Planning
A simple lack of information can effectively eliminate a year of the dual enrollment experience. Some state laws now stipulate that schools distribute written notification about dual enrollment, although the responsibility for adequate, timely dissemination resides within individual districts. Families do need information about the law’s existence, prerequisites required to qualify, appropriate college courses, potential consequences of participation, and timelines that coordinate differences in high school and college calendars. Typically, the college admissions and course registration process is completed several months before classes begin.
To meet that timeline, the high school student must develop dual enrollment plans the previous year. In states that require students to pass their proficiency exam, the exam must be written and results returned before qualifying for college classes. Thus, if a student hoped to enroll in college classes as an 11th grader, the proficiency exam would need to be written early in the 10th grade. In most states, proficiency tests are traditionally administered to 11th graders during the spring of the year; thus, failsafe administrative directives are needed to insure that a 10th grader is not excluded from taking the test that the dual enrollment law requires for eligibility.
To take full advantage of dual enrollment, academic planning should start during middle school. With wise foresight, Michigan’s law stipulates that, starting with eighth grade, all students must be informed annually about the option for dual enrollment. The intent of this early notice is to help families secure opportunities for accelerated coursework and to help counselors develop long-range academic plans with students. Now, neither educator nor parent need fear that the curriculum will not last until graduation.
Dual enrollment legislation recognizes that some students need the challenge of, and can learn, curricula above their grade level. As such, it directs that content acceleration for high school students be permitted, even while acknowledging that the solution can require utilizing a different educational institution.
However, the law’s support of content acceleration has not yet extended by implication to earlier grade levels. Obviously, high school students most ready for college courses are those who complete high school courses early, ideally by acceleration options offered throughout the grade levels. Many districts offer credit by examination, independent study, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses as high school acceleration options (Myers, 1994).
However, advanced students are often ready for these challenges as early as junior high and early high school, thus making dual enrollment a viable option for the last high school years. (Casserly, 1986). And, since many bright elementary students have already mastered up to half of the required curriculum offered (Ross, 1994), content acceleration is an appropriate option to provide challenge at the early grades. Yet, when dual enrollment is implemented, it does not often serve as a catalyst to develop accelerated opportunities in earlier grades.
Course Credit and Grades
Established practice in both high school and college uses units of credit to document a student’s successful completion of a course. But, each institution handles and interprets credit differently. In high school, seat time is a constant for almost all courses; thus, each course is standardized to equate to one credit per year. Since instructional time varies (from one to five hours weekly) with college courses, the number of credits awarded per course also varies. Both systems are accepted, understood, and generally work well, as long as they remain separate.
But, dual-enrolled students, enrolled and earning credits in both institutions, find inconsistencies, confusion, and sometimes inequity. All states agree that dual-enrolled students who complete a college course will be awarded high school credit in a similar content area (McCarthy, 1997). This credit provides the documentation that the student has mastered content that fulfills high school graduation requirements, and provides an historical record of a student’s high school course of study.
In some states, dual-enrolled students who complete a college course will find it more difficult to receive college credit. Colleges are increasingly cautious about granting college credit, especially transfer credit, because of the concern that dualenrolled courses may not meet the same standards as traditional college classes. This is particularly true for college courses that are offered within the high school and enroll only high school students. Credits received at a community college, college, or university may transfer to another institution, especially within the same state, but oftentimes they do not (Brody, 1999).
Letter grades, also used in both high schools and universities to denote a student’s level of achievement, produce additional issues for the dual-enrolled student. Dual enrollment laws are silent on transferring letter grades; in practice, many districts grant a high school credit for the college course, and then record a pass/fail grade. Dual-enrolled grades, whether recorded as an A or B or a “pass,” will likely affect a student’s high school GPA (grade point average), and, thus, class rank. More difficult college course requirements could result in a lower grade, while a pass/fail eliminates accruing possible honors points awarded for high school advanced courses.
In addition, dualenrolled students could find that they do not meet NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) college freshman academic eligibility requirements (NCAA, 1996). College courses that reflect academic core content are usually accepted by NCAA as long as they are recorded on the high school transcript. However, in one instance, NCAA did challenge a student’s transcript that recorded a high number of college credits (Nathan, 1998). Most significant, however, is that any course recorded with a pass/fail grade— the preferred practice of districts for dual-enrolled courses—will not meet NCAA core course requirements.
Moreover, NCAA identifies that courses taught below the high school’s regular academic level can’t be considered core courses. While the likely intent is to insure a standard for recognizing only high school curricula, another guidebook statement—that courses taken in the eighth grade cannot satisfy high school core-course requirements—can work against advanced students. Content-accelerated middle school students now frequently enroll in high school algebra and geometry (courses required by NCAA’s high school math core content). For these students, NCAA eligibility rests on a district’s decision to record a high school credit and a letter grade on their high school transcript. This practice would establish equity with other high school students enrolled in the district who do receive credit and a grade when they master the same content, albeit at a later age/grade.
The NCAA intent is, understandably, to set academic standards for college athletes. But, when academically advanced students are caught between NCAA rules and district practice, they have been declared ineligible (Nathan, 1998). The solution need not be a student’s forced choice between college athletic eligibility and advanced coursework. Instead, districts and the NCAA can generate policies that level the playing field: High school credit should be awarded for mastery of generally accepted high school and college-level content (regardless of the student’s age/grade when completed); and, if letter grades must be recorded for all courses, advanced coursework should not inappropriately compromise an overall GPA.
Even when students enroll in a college course taught on campus, meet all the course requirements, receive a letter grade that documents mastery from the instructor, and know the tuition is paid, they may still not be awarded college credit. In some states, the student’s ability to receive the college credit—for the college course that has been successfully completed—depends on who pays the tuition.
When high school students enroll in a college course, their tuition is paid, in accordance with the dual-enrollment law of each state, either by the student’s family or their school district. Not surprisingly, political considerations have influenced dualenrollment language in many states, and money is often at the heart of divergent perspectives.
Initially, dual enrollment gained political support from legislators because it could accomplish their desired goal: raise student achievement (by granting students access to presumably more challenging courses) without expending any new tax dollars. In fact, students completing course requirements with one (college) course rather than two (high school preceding college) courses would produce a cost savings for the taxpayer.
Through dual enrollment, the current tax dollars allocated for K–12 students would continue to support their full-time enrollment. Now, however, the monies could support enrollment in the most challenging course, even if offered at a college or university. Thus, the student, by deciding to dual enroll, causes the K–12 monies to be divided between the school district and a university, usually prorated to approximate the number of courses (often regardless of credit load) taken at each institution. In most states, K–12 monies allocated to the district are tapped to pay tuition for college courses.
Schools did not like the effect of legislation that arbitrarily shifted monies, historically allocated solely for K–12 use, to higher education. They reasoned that higher education receives its own allocation of tax dollars; now it was viewed as also receiving K–12 revenues. Further, college tuition is traditionally paid by parents (and scholarships); dual enrollment would give these students a “free ride” and set a new precedent. During political debate, this money shift was sometimes labeled as a disguised “schools of choice” or “voucher” plan.
Sometimes, strenuous efforts were exerted on legislators to abandon, or severely dilute, the law. Unwilling to kill dual enrollment as an option, some states’ legislators agreed that, while K–12 dollars would pay the college tuition, these monies should support only a K–12, and not college, education. Thus, when a student completes a college course that meets the high school requirement, the school pays the tuition, and the student receives high school credit. In this way, K–12 dollars pay for K–12 credit and do not purchase a college education. In many states, the college credit will be available retroactively, but only if the student later enrolls as a college student at that particular institution.
This creates a unique situation: A student can successfully complete all college course requirements, have the tuition paid, and yet not receive the college course credit that has been earned. In states using this plan, a provision permits students to receive the college credit even if they do not later enroll at that institution: The family, rather than the K–12 school, can pay the tuition. With this arrangement, the family’s tuition payment relieves the district from using K–12 funds allocated for that student, and the college credit is awarded. No process addresses how these monies, allocated but not used for the student’s class enrollment, should now be used.
Occasionally, a college and a school district agree to offer a college-level course within the regular high school schedule. Districts incur their usual costs for this, plus some likely professional development costs, when the course is part of a high school teacher’s regular class load. The student, enrolling in a regularly scheduled class, earns high school credit. Sometimes the school/college agreement permits the student to also earn college credit. In some situations, however, college credit would be considered an added benefit of the high school class and, thus, could be awarded when the parents chose to pay tuition. In this circumstance, parents pay tuition for a class that is already supported by a K–12 tax dollar allocation; the costs incurred by the college, after initial teacher training, are not obvious.
Unfortunately, the few states requiring students to pay for post-secondary credit perpetuate the elitist stereotype of gifted education. While likely unintended, serious inequity results. Students whose families have the ability to pay tuition will build a record of college credit. Students whose families cannot afford college tuition will be limited to a transcript of high school credit. Though succeeding equally in college courses, these students would present differing, unequal, records in the college admissions process. And, data available through Minnesota surveys underscore that dual-enrollment participants are far from the stereotypical elite: 60% were B, C, and D students in high school, yet more than half of those participating received a grade of A or B in their college courses. At the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities campus, dual-enrolled students earned an average GPA of 3.1; the college average was 2.7 (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992).
All students’ records should reflect these (early age) successes in college courses, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Obviously, the states that both pay college tuition and offer simultaneous high school and college credit eliminate these significant, secondary consequences.
The interplay of academic credit, tuition, and tax dollars reflects the tension imposed upon two institutions trying to serve the student with multi-grade, especially cross-institutional, educational needs. Dual-enrollment legislation simply accentuates the great gap between grade 12 and “13.”
Developing the Seamless Transition
Some schools have long recognized that some students are ready for, and need, the challenge of above-grade-level curricula. Not uncommonly, districts allow an elementary student to travel between a homeroom and a nearby classroom offering a more advanced curriculum. Increasingly, districts are developing policies that support curricular flexibility within the district. But, when the student learns curricula from both grades 12 and 13, new institutional practices and policies are invoked. When those two institutions’ practices conflict, the student’s transition between high school and college may be in jeopardy. Focusing on several key areas can create a seamless transition for dual-enrolled students.
Course content, course credit, course grades, instructional time, and school calendars are all parameters around which both K–12 and colleges organize curricula and learning. In simplistic terms, grade 12 is followed by grade 13. Students are ready for college courses after they know high school content.
Conflicts, both organizational and administrative, result because the reality of schools is complex. For example, a one-credit and a five-credit college science course might be taken by two different students, yet both students might receive the same high school credit. Students could take a full-time college load, yet not meet the full-time high school requirement. They could easily find gaps in their learning, or duplication of content, upon entering a college course. Some students could enroll in a college class when the more rigorous course is offered at the high school.
Depending on the language and interpretation of a state’s law, all these situations are likely. The distance between grade 12 and 13 should be no greater than between grades 11 and 12. But, dual enrollment demonstrates that there is not a natural transition from high school to college.
Standards that span grades 12 and 13 will correct this disparity. For example, seat time does not measure content mastery, and it is an unreliable indicator on which to award credit. While the “average” time needed to master high school algebra is one year, some students can learn it in half the instructional time, while others need twice as long. Is the best educational decision to award one-half, one, or two credits, depending on how long it takes to learn algebra? At least for dual-enrolled students, earning credit should be based on a standardized, measurable outcome— student mastery of course content.
Course objectives can identify a sequence of courses that will avoid significant gaps or overlap for the student, and should result in an articulation that matches competencies between courses. Recommendations regarding curriculum articulation is work that is best accomplished by joint high school-college faculty committees with content specific expertise, and with administrative support of the respective institutions. This idea is not new: Excellent examples of well-developed models are found in the articulation agreements between high schools and community colleges for tech prep educational programs (Fincher-Ford, 1997).
Dual-enrollment patterns can also help faculty make decisions about curricular changes. While some decry that dual enrollment creates a vacuum of the best students leaving high school classrooms, others see that significant numbers of students are succeeding in more advanced courses. If “too many” students leave high school for the rigor of college courses, some question what changes are needed to attract these students. Shortly after the introduction of dual enrollment, Minnesota’s schools concluded:
Faced with very real competition for their students—and, more significantly, for the dollars they brought—Minnesota’s high schools responded. In three years, they quadrupled the number of advanced placement courses they offered. More than 50 high schools established cooperative courses with postsecondary schools, taught on the high school campus. (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992, p. 98)
Advanced Placement (AP) classes provide successful students with college credit at most universities across the country. Because AP is wellrecognized as an external standard that matches college course standards, college credits earned through AP are more likely than dual-enrollment credits to transfer (Brody, 1999). However, AP courses are underutilized when viewed only as an alternative, rather than a complementary option, to dual enrollment. Bright students can be ready and prepared for some AP courses during their early high school years, allowing their first experience with college standards to occur within the school setting. Then, the transition to dual enrollment follows naturally.
Cross-Institution Counseling Needs
When faculty organize to review curricula and develop course sequences, both high school and college faculty work together on a mutual task. Perhaps less obvious but equally important, counseling staff from both institutions also share mutual interests and common concerns about dual-enrolled students.
While dual-enrolled students are capable of comprehending college curricula, they likely lack experience with the organizational tools and time management required of college students. The clues held within a syllabus that help to organize time, the unknown maze of a college campus, the expected judgment in making decisions—these are likely all new experiences. Indeed, advice on deciding which course to take and how to read a college schedule of classes would help orient most new students. In many ways, they require the same support offered most incoming freshman; but, often the well-orchestrated freshman orientation process is not utilized for part-time, dual-enrolled students.
Leaving the high school environment is not always easy, either. Students can easily be disenfranchised from their school if they are not fulltime participants. They may miss daily announcements of important activities, become an outsider as the school “nerd,” or feel guilty for taking the school’s money.
These students can feel that they fit in neither school. Being able to take on advanced coursework should not require that they must figure everything else out on their own. Both high school and college counselors can benefit from understanding the issues that affect bright students generally, and the specific stresses that dual enrollment can add.
College and school administrators should also discuss the cross-institutional needs, initiate and review agreements, and maintain the standards set by each institution. Quality dual-enrollment programs require that college standards be maintained: Issues of qualified faculty, course content, credit articulation and tuition payment are best resolved at administrative levels (Fincher-Ford, 1997). Institutional agreements can create the structure to support the high school-tocollege transition.
Laws, as well as schools, sometimes improve with parent involvement. While dual enrollment motivated legislators because they saw a cost-effective mechanism that improved educational opportunities for both advanced and underachieving students, parents simply saw rejuvenated students. Parents don’t often look to legislators when they work on school issues, but their direct dialogue about dual enrollment likely saved it from an early demise.
Minnesota’s early experience with dual enrollment tells a powerful history lesson (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992). In 1985, it was the first state to pass comprehensive legislation, called Post-Secondary Options. In the first year, approximately 2% of eligible students participated. By 1987, 5% of eligible students statewide were participating. Parents loved it; they saw students taking renewed interest in school. Their bored, sometimes feisty, students liked the independent environment of college and responded by generally earning higher grades than they had in high school.
However, Minnesota’s early experiences with dual enrollment were not without conflict:
In 1986, the education establishment tried to gut the program. But the cat was out of the bag. When its supporters organized hearings, [citizen’s advocate reported] that the parents swarmed the capitol: they wouldn’t let it happen. Student after student showed up to say, “This transformed my life; I was bored; I didn’t care about school; I wasn’t even going to go to college, and this just made me come alive.” Parents showed up to say, “I couldn’t get my kid to study, and now I can’t stop him.” (Osborne & Gaebler (1992, p. 98)
Parents support dual enrollment because they see that it results in increased student achievement. Parents should recognize the power of advocacy and how it influenced the outcome of dual enrollment.
Dual enrollment works as an educational option. For the student ready for the challenge and independence of college, dual enrollment provides the luxury of acclimating to new college roles while remaining within the security of home, school, and friends. At a pace that can differ for each individual student, dual-enrolled students can oscillate between the new and the familiar. Dual enrollment demonstrates that some students are ready to make the transition from one set of course expectations and students roles to another. The complex challenge for educational institutions is to develop the alignment between them that will make this transition seamless.
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This article is reprinted with permission of Prufrock Press, Inc. https://www.prufrock.com/ and originally appeared in The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Fall 1999.
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