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High-Quality and Equity-Driven Dual Enrollment Programs Can Help Address the College Completion Crisis

September 17, 2018

By Sarah Belnick, ECMC Foundation


By 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the country will require at least some college degree. Despite this reality, the college completion crisis threatens our country’s ability to meet the economy’s demands. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 59 percent of students graduate from college within six years. The issue is most prevalent among students from low-income, underserved backgrounds, where only 39 percent of Pell-eligible students complete college within the same time period.

Many of these students face barriers to persisting and graduating. More often than not, they juggle coursework and jobs in order to pay for tuition and basic needs like food and rent. Many, who are the first in their family to go to college, struggle with navigating campus life because they lack guidance and support.

While there is no silver-bullet solution, dual enrollment programs –a type of college in high school program – can play a critical part in addressing the college completion crisis. Today, a record breaking two million high school students are enrolled in these programs.

Dual enrollment programs are immersive college preparatory programs that allow high school students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit by completing college-level coursework. Offered at low or no cost, dual enrollment programs set students up for success, decrease time to graduation in college, and lower tuition costs – even years before they ever apply to or start college. Moreover, numerous studies show that dual enrollment programs are most effective when they serve students from low-income, underserved backgrounds.

Yet despite their promise, many of these programs experience challenges with quality and equitable access by the students who would benefit the most from them. The latest available data from U.S. Department of Education shows that 19 percent of low-income students, compared to 23 percent of higher-income peers, are enrolled in a dual enrollment course. In several states, the equity gaps are greater between low-income and high-income students. For instance, data from Indiana shows that while 45 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, they are only 30 percent of all students taking dual enrollment courses.

Recognizing these challenges, with the support of ECMC Foundation, Joyce Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the College in the High School Alliance (CHSA) is leading the expansion, equity, and quality focus of dual enrollment programs and policies nationwide. CHSA is led by five national organizations: Bard College, Jobs for the Future (JFF), KnowledgeWorks, the Middle College National Consortium, and the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. Its total coalition consists of 62 national and state organizations.

“College in high school strategies are growing and increasing in demand. At this pivotal moment, the College in High School Alliance will activate the kind of national network that is needed to ensure practitioners and policymakers have the information and tools they need to support and scale up quality [in dual enrollment programs],” says Joel Vargas, Vice President, School and Learning Designs at JFF.

CHSA plans to articulate policy recommendations for implementing dual enrollment programs at regional and statewide scales, train education practitioners with the knowledge and tools necessary to advocate for supportive state policies and provide resources to policymakers.

In addition, CHSA will develop resources including a state policy roadmap for scaling high quality college in high school systems, a fact sheet for the fidelity implementation of Every Student Succeeds Act, and transition materials for incoming governors and state education officials.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about this is “so many national, state, local, and philanthropic partners [are] coming together to champion greater investment in high quality college in high school programs as a viable strategy for tackling the nation’s equity challenges,” says Lillian Pace the Senior Director of National Policy at KnowledgeWorks, the ECMC Foundation grantee partner of the initiative.

Pushing for high-quality, equity-driven dual enrollment programs can help level the playing field for all students. With the ongoing expansion of dual enrollment and early college opportunities, we must ensure that those opportunities are available for low-income and underrepresented students whom research has shown can get the most benefit. CHSA has laid out an ambitious set of goals to develop policy solutions and build a movement to promote equity and quality in college in high school programs, and the ECMC Foundation team is excited to support their work to the benefit of students nationwide.

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