New evidence says taking college classes while in high school can improve a student’s chances of earning a college degree.
The findings indicate that these “dual enrollment” classes may be another tool as California grapples with a looming shortage of college-educated workers.
Dual-enrollment classes have been shown to give students a preview of the college experience and permit students to amass some post-secondary credit before even enrolling at a college or university. That can lead to savings in tuition and reduce the risk of dropping out.
Researchers from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center crunched the numbers for this first-of-its-kind report, examining the 17-year-olds who took a dual enrollment class in 2010 and tracking them for six years as they made their way through college.
For dual-enrollment students across the country who entered a four-year university, 59 percent earned a bachelor’s after five years. California’s dual-enrollment students did slightly better, with 61 percent earning a bachelor’s. The data show students who take dual-enrollment courses and complete their degrees do so on average a year faster than students who didn’t take a dual-enrollment course. In many cases that meant students saved money in tuition and entered the workforce faster.
Dual-enrollment courses also have a positive effect on community college students. The researchers found that 46 percent of high school students who did dual-enrollment work and went on to a community college earned a certificate or degree in five years. That number is lower — 39 percent within six years — for students who enrolled at a community college without first taking a college class in high school.
The results aren’t as rosy for California, though. Just 29 percent of dual-enrollment students who go on to a community college earned a certificate or degree.
There are several reasons for this, said Davis Jenkins, a scholar at CCRC and the report’s co-author. “The graduation rate for students who start higher education in California community colleges is pretty low. It ranks very low among the states,” he said. Jenkins also said California’s higher-education landscape is highly decentralized, causing problems for students who want to transfer.
In recent years California has been more active in encouraging dual-enrollment coursework. A law passed in 2015 allowed college courses to be taught on high school campuses — easing the path for high school students to take college classes but who may lack the means to get to a community college.
That’s on top of the state’s growth in dual-enrollment students. Between 2012-13 and 2015-16, the number of students taking such classes grew by 56 percent, to nearly 50,000.
Most students who take dual-enrollment college courses in California do not pay tuition, a spokeswoman for the California Community Colleges said. One of the programs also covers tuition and textbook costs. Community colleges can charge tuition in some cases.
Nationally, dual-enrollment courses grew by 67 percent between 2002 and 2010-11, the most recent year available, according to federal data.
Jenkins said the full impact of dual-enrollment courses is felt when students take them on college campuses. The exposure to adult learners with experience in the workforce can be a significant dose of real-world experience a high school setting cannot offer.
“It shows them that college is a different culture. That it is not regimented, that there’s much more autonomy and therefore more responsibility for your own learning,” Jenkins said. “Plus it gives students who have no one in their families who get to college, if they can succeed in that course, it gives them the confidence that, ‘I can do college.'”
While the dual-enrollment results in this report point to the possibility of new reforms that can encourage more students to enroll at a college and complete a degree, the authors warn of several pitfalls.
Low-income students who took dual enrollment classes completed college at lower rates than their wealthier peers, the report’s data show (but they still do better than low-income students who didn’t take such a class). And states largely have neglected analyzing this growing class of students, meaning policymakers have little information about which dual-enrollment programs get the best results. Among studies that were done, results vary based on the state, underscoring the need to study dual-enrollment students with greater depth, the report’s authors say.
Still, Jenkins said dual-enrollment classes can also help students better understand the complex landscape of higher education, especially in California.
Paired with California’s recent efforts to improve the transfer pathways of community college students into Cal State and University of California campuses, dual-enrollment courses can also be a key time to educate high-school students about the state’s various reforms and programs to increase completion rates.
For example, “We think that community colleges should be marketing themselves to these students and their families as a low-cost route to a bachelor’s degree,” said Jenkins. “But in order to make good on that marketing promise, colleges have to do a lot better job of clarifying the path, advising students into paths, and monitoring their progress.”
And while higher-income students in California have long known about community colleges as an affordable entry point into the UCs and CSUs, they’re aided by their families’ familiarity with the college-going process. First-generation and low-income students “don’t have that,” Jenkins said.