Concurrent enrollment as a gateway to college

High school students concurrently enrolled at the Community College of Denver. (Photo: CCD)

Imagine finishing your associate degree before you get a high school diploma. That’s been the life path for a small but growing number of students in recent years in states like Colorado and Minnesota that have been ramping up dual-enrollment efforts between high schools and community colleges, through which high school students take courses for college credit.

While receiving an associate degree before a high school diploma is a particularly exceptional result, the ultimate goal of such programs is somewhat more modest: giving high school students an early start toward a certificate, an associate degree or something beyond faster than they otherwise would have, building a bridge toward higher education before they have stepped out of high school.

In Colorado, the number of high school students participating in dual enrollment at community colleges has skyrocketed, from 7,405 in the 2008-09 academic year, to 24,261 in 2016-17 (41,857 if you include four-year schools), after the state made a concerted effort to offer college-level courses that are physically located at high schools, known as concurrent enrollment.

In 2015-16, the state’s community colleges awarded 1,100 certificates and 300 associate degrees to high school students, and the percentage of overall community college headcount comprising high school students has risen, from 11.9 percent in 2012-13, to 20.6 percent in 2017-18, ranging from more than 40 percent to less than 10 percent.

Minnesota has offered dual enrollment since 1985 and might be the first state to do so, says Jessica Espinosa, director of college transitions at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MSCU). During fiscal year 2018, 32,489 students were participating in dual enrollment across the state at two-year schools (43,311 including four-year schools), the majority of them (18,483 for community colleges, 28,519 including universities) in concurrent enrollment at their high schools, a figure that has doubled in the past decade since the legislature began appropriating funds to school districts to offer such courses.

“From students’ and families’ standpoint, and high schools, it’s highly successful,” Espinosa says. “These students perform well. They outperform their peers in terms of performance, persistence, all of those indicators. Families love it because in Minnesota, high school students are not allowed to be charged for any participation in the program — it’s free to students and families, including textbooks, tuition, everything else. With the rising costs of higher education, it’s definitely a ‘win’ from that standpoint.”

Expanded access

Focusing on concurrent enrollment has expanded access beyond upper-middle-income students at suburban schools who had a greater ability to attend courses on a college campus, says Joseph Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, who served on a task force a decade ago — when he was president of Pikes Peak Community College — which recommended widening opportunities and helped spur legislation funding them.

“The idea was that if more students could access it, more could finish high school college-ready,” Garcia says. “We saw dramatic increases in Hispanic, African-American, urban and rural enrollment. It grew 4,000 percent in the Hispanic community in the first three years, and it grew dramatically overall.”

About one-quarter of the state’s juniors and seniors are enrolled in at least one concurrent enrollment course, he adds.

The program is offered at all community colleges in the state and most high school districts, with varying levels of participation, says Landon Pirius, vice chancellor for student and academic affairs. About one-third of students are enrolled in career and technical education, and the rest are in liberal arts and transfer-oriented disciplines, he says. They start as early as sophomore year of high school.

“A student who has some college credit is more likely to go to college and more likely to compete their degree,” Pirius says. “We see concurrent enrollment as that gateway. It changes their mindset. People who think they’re not college material change their minds once they have credit. We see it as a success tool.”

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Dual enrollment prompts school districts and colleges to communicate better and be more thoughtful about laying down pathways in general, Espinosa says.

“We have a lot of innovation going on in the space, asking K-12 and higher ed to work together,” she says.

In Minnesota, that’s ranged from early college initiatives that provide an intentional path to an associate degree, to career and technical education models that involve private industry partners and internships, says Greg Rathert, interim director of P-20 and college readiness for MSCU.

“Moving forward, there’s more interest in that type of model, given the state of the economy, the projected state of need for middle-skills jobs, and the overall need for an increasingly trained, educated workforce,” he says.

Colorado has focused on concurrent enrollment due to the belief — which has been borne out — that students are more likely to participate if courses are offered at their high school, in a familiar environment, with teachers they already know, Pirius says.

“We believe this is a more accessible and equitable approach” than offering courses just on college campuses, he says.

“That was the intent of the law when it passed about a decade ago,” he adds.

Another aspect that makes dual enrollment equitable is the fact that families save on college tuition as students knock off credits while they’re still in high school.

“Students who come from disadvantaged school systems or low-income families can now access it without having to pay tuition upfront,” Garcia says.

Addressing the challenges

One of the significant challenges of concurrent enrollment at high schools, which has caused participation to level off somewhat, is that high school teachers need to be college-qualified with a master’s degree in the appropriate subject matter — a bar that rural districts in particular, and to some degree urban schools, face challenges in meeting, Garcia says.

“A big issue for us is maintaining access consistently around the state, and then making sure these are always college-level in terms of rigor,” he says. “So that students don’t have a mistaken belief they’re doing college-level work, when they’re not.”

The community college system is working with districts to try to strategize, Pirius says. For example, in Denver a credential instructor in English might be able to teach online to students around the city, even though they’re physically located in one high school.

Another challenge: only 30 percent of students who take concurrent enrollment end up enrolling in one of the state’s community colleges, he says.

“They might go elsewhere,” Pirius says. “But if concurrent enrollment is to be a leg up on college, they all should be going to college. It might be a trade program; it might be a university. We shouldn’t have any not going anywhere. We’re trying to change that scenario.”

In some cases, he figures, “They might not even realize it’s a college course because it’s embedded in their high school. We might need to improve communication: ‘You’re already taking a college course.’”

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Minnesota has faced the same accreditation issue, Rathert says, and the state is working to create more graduate coursework to help high school instructors meet those standards and working with the legislature to provide faculty funding to assist them. Career and technical education has its own requirements that include “recency” standards for recent work experience, as well as requirements around hours of professional training, he says.

“There have been questions about the quality of courses because they’re taught by high school instructors — not anything grounded in fact, but skepticism about their capability,” Espinosa adds. “The research doesn’t show it’s a problem. Students perform well in these courses, and subsequent courses once they get to college.”

The state of Minnesota believes in both models of dual enrollment, Espinosa says.

“The state sees it as valuable to helping students get an early state on college, and save time and money,” she says. “Minnesota, similar to Colorado, has large, shifting demographic changes that are going to call on us to do business differently, to support the growing diversity of people in our K-12 population.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.