The Dual Enrollment Playbook and Helping High School Students

The Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program recently published a report analyzing successful dual enrollment programs at community colleges in three states.

According to the report’s researchers, there are more than a million U.S. high schoolers participating in dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to enroll in college courses while in high school, earning credits that count toward a high school diploma and a college degree.

There are multiple benefits for enrollees in such a program. Students gain an exposure to college, experience more rigorous classes, and save money and time in college with the credits they earn.

Dual enrollment programs are increasing in popularity. Over the past eight years, school systems and community colleges have doubled the number of students participating in these programs. In 2019, 37 bills were enacted by state legislatures expanding dual enrollment programs.

Clearly, the increased popularity of these programs appears to be due to the win-win nature. Students and their parents save time spent in college and tuition, thanks to credits earned in high school. By shortening the amount of time high school graduates in these programs spend in college, states are able to reduce their required funding.

However, evidence shows that not all students are benefitting from these programs. Underserved students may never learn about dual enrollment; their parents can’t afford the cost of tuition, fees, and transportation to college; their K-12 education didn’t prepare them well enough; or they were excluded from such an opportunity.

The Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center identified nine dual enrollment programs in Florida, Ohio, and Washington that had high participation rates for historically underrepresented students of color and strong outcomes for these students in course success, credit accumulation, and college enrollment and persistence. According to the researchers, one in five school districts across the country have closed the gap in access to dual enrollment courses by race. The sites researched demonstrate that equitable access and success in dual enrollment programs can occur when intentional strategy is paired with innovation and commitment.

Through the research, five principles were identified that build a strong, equitable dual enrollment program:

  • Principle I – Set a shared vision and goals that prioritize equity.
  • Principle II – Expand equitable access.
  • Principle III – Connect students to advising and supports that ensure equitable outcomes.
  • Principle IV – Provide high-quality instruction that builds students’ competence and confidence.
  • Principle V – Organize teams and develop relationships to maximize potential.

The paper provides a thorough analysis of existing dual enrollment programs that are working well and embracing each of the above principles incorporated in Strategy sections for each of the five principles. Here’s an example of the strategies included for Principle I.

Strategy 1 is portrayed as “connect[ing] dual enrollment to a broader vision.” When dual enrollment is equitable and successful, the researchers maintain that it is a foundational part of institutional and partnership wide access and equity strategies.

Among other goals, college and high school leaders aim to maximize rigor and affirm aspirations for all students, increase the region’s college-going rate, advance economic mobility and regional workforce development, and serve rural communities. Several examples in Florida, Ohio, and Washington state are included.

Strategy 2 is “commit to equity in dual enrollment.” Senior leaders who commit to better preparing underrepresented students for college will support their commitment with intentional investments in staff and resources.

Ideally, school and district leaders will assess participation and outcomes gaps by race and income across all acceleration opportunities. This assessment begins by defining the purpose of dual enrollment with partners. Among the key purposes are:

  • Reducing costs for students and families and reducing the time it takes to earn a degree
  • Increasing academic rigor in preparation for college and increasing the chances of attaining a degree, especially for underrepresented students
  • Introducing students to college-level expectations and helping them develop self-confidence
  • Advancing students’ sense of purpose by exposing them to postsecondary fields of study
  • Increasing revenue and enrollment for high schools and community colleges
  • Meeting K-12 state accountability metrics that reward dual enrollment participation

Dual enrollment partners should evaluate equity gaps and set targets to close them. Ideally, partners will measure disparities in participation and outcomes and act collaboratively to address them through new initiatives and ending practices that may be creating unintentional barriers. Once again, the researchers provide several excellent examples of community college and school district leaders whose commitments included shared goals and targets.

Strategy 3 is “consider partners’ incentives and constraints.” It may be obvious to some, but it’s great that the researchers point out that it’s important for partners to understand each other’s incentives under state and local dual enrollment policies.

An understanding of mutual incentives can allow partners to maximize the benefits for both institutions as well as their students. If the incentives are misaligned, they can reach out to lawmakers to advance policies that could improve access and success for the underrepresented students.

Most dual enrollment agreements are formalized in memoranda of understanding (MOU) that include articulation agreements detailing course equivalencies and credit transfer. Commitments in MOUs may include committing to flexible entry requirements; using funding from the state or revenue collected from a partner to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and transportation for students as well as advisors to students; expanding dual enrollment offerings at the high school and helping credential more high school teachers to quality to teach dual enrollment; and accepting passing scores in Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate® (IB), and Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) exams for course credit at the college.

Strategy 4 is to “develop an equity-minded culture.” Not all educators are believers that dual enrollment and other accelerated options are appropriate for all students. Leaders must convince these individuals to support acceleration regardless of their personal beliefs.

This form of persuasion may take persistence over a period of years, not months. It begins by building a culture of high expectations. Successful leaders instill high expectations for all students, including a belief that all students can and will succeed in advanced work.

I applaud the Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center for supporting this report. I applaud the report’s authors — Gelsey Mehl and Joshua Wyner from the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and Elisabeth Barnett, John Fink, and Davis Jenkins from the Community College Research Center.

The report is well written, and, most importantly, provides excellent examples of partners that have developed dual enrollment programs that have increased their numbers of underrepresented students. If I were tasked to build or improve the outcomes for a dual enrollment program, this report would be my first source for guidance.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence