Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Equal Access to Early College Options?

I recently published a co-authored IERC report on the extent to which Illinois high schools engage in dual credit or dual enrollment. Dual credit or dual enrollment (I’ll use dual credit for consistency purposes) is an arrangement where high school students take college course and earn college credit (and sometimes earn high school credit also) before they transition to college. Based on data from 2003, our report found that the dual credit participation rate among high schools varied from 0% to 88%. I will note that these figures are based on old data and we know dual credit has expanded in Illinois since 2003, so it is likely that many more high schools offer dual credit to larger proportions of students. That said, national estimates based on data from the 2010-11 academic year suggest there is still large variation among high schools.

Our study found differences in high schools’ dual credit participation rate based on high school locale, geographic location within the states, and the composition of the student body. In particular, we found that rural schools, schools in the central and southern parts of the state, and schools with higher proportions of White and middle- and upper-income students tended to have the highest dual credit participation rates. In other words, we found that students’ access to college courses largely depends on the high school they attend. In a separate study of state dual credit policies I conducted for the regional accrediting agencies, my colleagues and I found that most state policies do not require high schools and colleges to offer dual credit, so the decision to build dual credit programs in the high school curriculum is a local decision. 

In my dissertation research (and similar to research conducted outside of Illinois and nationally), I found that dual credit positively impacts desirable outcomes such as college enrollment and college completion. Although this body of knowledge is relatively young, these studies increasingly suggest that access to college courses, college norms, and college expectations may provide positive benefits for high school students. If we believe these data, then the policy and practice community should engage in important conversations about equal accessibility to early college options for ALL high school students—including those attending high schools that have high concentrations of low-income students and students of color and high schools in more urban areas.

This is by far no small task and we offer concrete recommendations in our recent report. However, any task to expand dual credit access should be accompanied by data collection efforts to ensure we understand both the implementation and outcomes of such efforts. This is especially important if the policy goal is to expand dual credit access to different school contexts where contextual factors may influence the intended program outcomes in unanticipated ways. In Illinois, policy and practice has shifted recently in the direction of expansion. For example the Chicago Public School system and City Colleges of Chicago are scaling up dual credit offerings in key subject areas and recently began five Early College High Schools focused in STEM areas. Also, the Illinois Community College Board is holding forums around the state this year and recently provided grant funding to colleges to enhance and/or build dual credit programs. These efforts and similar efforts underway in other states are positive developments for expanding access to postsecondary education, but it will be important to study these efforts to ensure access is equitable and just.

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