A strategy of optimism: Early college/dual enrollment and community colleges


Early college and dual enrollment have been a niche program for high schools and colleges for a few decades. With deep roots in urban community colleges, at their best early college and dual-enrollment programs give high school students — particularly first-generation, minoritized, immigrant and low-income students — a head start on college coursework while in high school, with dedicated students supports, and often free of charge to themselves and their families.

One of the key themes in early college/dual-enrollment work is optimism, and the ways in which this is a stance that sets early college and dual enrollment apart from other education reform efforts. Early college efforts are different from other educational reforms of the past three decades because early college and dual enrollment are based on optimism and trust, the opposite approach of much of the educational accountability movement.

While so many educational reform efforts of the past decades have been built on the assumption that teachers do not know how to teach, and that students are not currently learning, the strategy of early college assumes that with the right supports, all high school students can benefit from college-level work, and that secondary and postsecondary teachers and staff can have a positive impact on this process.

A refurbished tool

Early college and dual enrollment give us a chance to rethink who is “college material,” and a chance to think differently about the young people we work with. Robert Snowden, interim vice president of enrollment services and student success at the Los Rios Community College District in California, uses curriculum areas such as radio, television and digital media production to draw in students who may not perceive that they are collegebound, and he is adding social justice programming as well to capitalize on this activist generation of high schoolers.

Education leaders are thinking about dual enrollment as the first step in a three-institution pathway, leading from high school, through a community college and then into a four-year institution, without skipping a semester or losing a single credit. Laura Douglas, president of Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, has been a pioneer in this area, particularly in connecting work done in career technical education and on to four-year engineering institutions, saving students thousands of dollars in tuition or student debt.

More specifically, community college leaders are using dual enrollment as a tool to break down the stigma about community college among high-, middle- and low-income students. Matt Reed, provost at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, told us that the range of high schools that his institution works with for dual-enrollment programming enables the college to reach the full range of students who are potential attendees as well as their families.

Boosting students’ self-image

Early college and dual-enrollment programs encourage schools to take chances of students who may not be taking advantage of Advanced Placement and other top academic track experiences, but with support, can take and succeed in a college class. This helps them change their self-image to that of a future college student. At Catholic Memorial School in Massachusetts, head of counseling Jack O’Keefe told me that he targeted dual-enrollment opportunities to students at the academic middle of the class, and saw some real successes as well as some frustrations this past spring.

Many attempts to reform K-12 education, particularly urban education, have viewed school systems as dysfunctional and students as damaged goods as a result. Early college and dual-enrollment programs take the opposite approach, viewing urban schools as partners in an effort to help students, and viewing the students as talented, capable and resilient, who with the right support can take on college coursework as soon as barriers to these classes are lifted.

Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, echoes this analysis about optimism, noting that the effort at his college was deeply connected to a larger effort to change the educational landscape of cities such as Lawrence, Massachusetts, and ensure a future with many more college graduates living and working there. Glenn has raised scholarship dollars to support these promise programs, with an aim of raising the educational and economic profile of the whole region.

Proof in the results

Early college programs nationwide have proven to deliver powerful results, with studies ranging from control/experimental research in North Carolina, to quantitative studies of large nationwide data sets, to cost/benefit analysis that shows an ROI of $15 for every $1 invested. In Massachusetts, research from the Massachusetts Departments of Elementary & Secondary Education and Higher Education demonstrates that early college programs have a positive relationship on college course taking, academic achievement, high school graduation rates, FAFSA completion and college enrollment after high school.

As America emerges from the pandemic this fall, the moment is perfect for greater integration of K-12 institutions and community colleges. With work to create the right partnerships, more students, including those traditionally left out of higher education, can find their way to the campus of community colleges nationwide.

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Meghann Walk is an Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in Public Humanities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Russ Olwell is associate dean and professor of education at the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. He is also the author of “Guide to Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs” (Routledge, 2021).