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Dual Enrollment No Panacea for Helping High Schoolers Prep for College

While dual enrollment is becoming increasingly popular as a way to help prepare high school students prepare for the rigor of college work, it may not be the magic potion for improving student outcomes that some educators think it is. Results depend on where the classes are taken and what kinds of classes they are.

Dual enrollment is an arrangement in which high school students--usually juniors and seniors--take college courses and receive college credits. According to a recent study, high school students who participated in dual enrollment were 12 percent more likely to go to college and 7 percent more likely to gain a bachelor's degree than those who didn't. Yet that difference is only evident among those students who attended college classes at a college. Among students taking classes on a high school campus, there was no real difference at all.

The study also attempted to address a popular notion: that Advanced Placement classes are more beneficial than dual enrollment. According to researcher Cecilia Speroni, in "High School Dual Enrollment Programs: Are We Fast-Tracking Students Too Fast?" dual enrollment was just as effective as participation in advanced placement courses, with one small difference: Students in dual enrollment classes were more likely to enroll first in a two-year college; AP kids headed more frequently directly to four-year colleges. But both groups went on to earn bachelor's degrees at comparable rates.

The study, undertaken by the National Center for Postsecondary Research, housed at Teachers College at Columbia University, tracked all of Florida's high school seniors in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 school years through to the summer of 2007. In that state about 14 percent of high school students take at least one college course.

However, Speroni did discover that those students who took college-level algebra while in high school were more likely to go to college and obtain a college degree. According to her research, taking dual enrollment algebra increased college enrollment by 16 percent and increased the likelihood of getting a four-year degree by an amazing 23 percent.

"I find no evidence that simply taking a [dual enrollment] course improved marginal students' rates of high school graduation, college enrollment, or college degree attainment," Speroni reported. "However, for students on the margin of participation in algebra, I find that taking such a challenging [dual enrollment] course had large and significant effects on college enrollment and graduation rates."

Speroni said the results suggest that having college algebra--a "gatekeeper" course--completed at the beginning of college appears to help students progress toward their degrees. "One potential explanation for this finding is that students who experience a more rigorous curriculum in high school might be better academically prepared for college and therefore more likely to persist toward a degree," she wrote. Dual enrollment students may have a better experience with the course, she noted, because of a lower workload in high school or because of the availability of support by high school counselors.

A different explanation, she added, may be that students who have already taken college-level algebra "start college with higher self-esteem and confidence in their ability to obtain a degree."

The report suggested that districts and colleges track outcomes for dual enrollment students and use the resulting data to adjust the structure of their programs for maximum impact.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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