From Enrollment to Completion

Topics: Early College High School, Education Policy, Higher Education

I read with great interest and high regard the recent ECS report, “Increasing Student Access and Success in Dual Enrollment Programs: 13 Model State-Level Policy Components.” For decades, a tremendous amount of emphasis has been placed on college access – usually in the form of community-based programs that assist students with the admission and financial aid processes, provide last dollar scholarship funds and offer an array of related services. And while that “movement” has been critically important in increasing the numbers of first-generation, low-income and minority students who enroll in higher education – and, by the way, that movement MUST continue – it seems that only recently have we begun to emphasize the readiness component of college access. You see, it’s not enough to help young people enroll in college, only to see many of them drop out long before completing a degree program. We must ensure that they enroll as fully prepared as possible to succeed – academically, socially and in every other way.

Dual enrollment has as its primary practical purpose the acquisition of college credits while in high school, which will save both time and money for the young people who desire to pursue higher education. And while I applaud these programs, especially to the extent that they target traditionally underrepresented populations of students, we must be careful not to overemphasize the “credit attainment” aspect to the detriment of students’ ability to successfully pursue a pathway that prepares them for higher level courses and leads to a meaningful outcome in the form of a degree or marketable credential.

Returning to my “preparedness” point, it is critical that dual enrollment courses shed the potential label of “fake college courses.” They must be rigorous and fully aligned or identical to introductory college courses. There is nothing more frustrating for a young enrollee who thinks the dual enrollment course s/he has taken has prepared him/her for the next level course, only to discover that s/he is woefully unprepared because the dual enrollment course was lacking in rigor.

It is also critical that dual enrollment courses be aligned to some degree or certificate pathway. Someone once used the term “random acts of dual enrollment” to describe the all-too-often unrelated courses students take, which ultimately may not add up to progress toward program or degree completion. We must make sure that the courses students take lead to an outcome that is progressive, marketable and worthwhile.

My organization, KnowledgeWorks, as well as a handful of others around the country, are helping to develop full-blown early college high schools, wherein our focus is to accelerate the readiness of students to enroll in and succeed in college courses. At most early college high schools, we begin with a pre-9th grade academic summer experience (usually for college credit) and intensive work in the 9th and 10th grades that focuses on mastering college preparatory English and Math – both critically important foundational areas for college success. In addition, we help design pathways for the especially diligent student to obtain up to 60 hours of college credit (or an AA Degree) during the 4-year high school career! The data has been overwhelming. Not only do early college high school students complete all of their high school requirements at much higher levels than their peers, but they also are far more likely to earn a college degree as well.

So whereas we applaud dual enrollment as an important stepping stone – especially if developed with rigor and intentionality, we also know and have demonstrated that young people are capable of so much more. However, we must provide the supports, interventions and flexibility that will lead to the best outcomes for students. At KnowledgeWorks and in numerous other organizations and communities across the nation, we are placing our bets on early college high schools.

Guest post by Harold D. Brown