For the past 70 years, American high school students who wanted to get a head start on higher education had one path forward: Take an Advanced Placement course, and then score high enough on the corresponding AP exam to hopefully qualify for college credit. But, thanks to a variety of factors, including academic tracking, costs, and a lack of qualified teachers, only 9% of Black students were enrolled in AP classes in 2020.
Now another program that also enables high schoolers to earn college credit has entered the chat: dual enrollment.
This program allows high school students to take courses for college credit, meaning they can start earning their academic degrees while still in high school. It’s no wonder using dual enrollment to get ahead is growing in popularity. High school students’ participation in these programs increased by 11% between spring 2021 and spring 2023.
Right now, we’re looking at “a pretty dynamic space” where educators are exploring different models for more access to dual enrollment, says Sara Allan, director of Early Learning and Pathways at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Historically, dual enrollment was something that was offered to perceived-high-achieving students,” Allan says. “But it’s becoming much more of an intentional support to help a much larger group of students get on a pathway to college and transition more smoothly and successfully into a college pathway after high school.”
So what exactly is dual enrollment, and what are some key differences between dual enrollment and AP classes?
What Is Dual Enrollment?
Dual enrollment means high school students are taking and earning credits for university-approved college courses. These courses are usually through collaborations between high schools and a higher education institution. It can also be called concurrent enrollment.
Though it varies between schools, interested students generally work with their guidance counselor to find acceptable and transferable courses. Then, when it comes to college applications, students have already earned credits, similar to AP classes.
“It’s all about enhancing their academic competitiveness when they apply to colleges and universities,” Grant says.
Plus, it has proven benefits at both the high school and collegiate levels. In addition to frontloading college credits to potentially graduate in less time, “it really increases or improves the high school completion rates for students who take these particular classes,” Ingram says.
A Different Type of College Preparation
Not only does dual enrollment increase high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates, it also boosts college degree attainment, says Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. This means there is more potential to close equity gaps for students from underrepresented communities. It can also save money in the long run, paying for courses during high school and finishing a degree in fewer semesters.
“If these classes are available and accessible to those students, it really has a profound effect on the academic matriculation for students of color,” Ingram says. “I believe these studies actually help these students not only advance their knowledge of academics, but give them a social background that really helps the maturity rate of our students so that they’re ready for that next level.”
Dual enrollment also helps bridge the gap when schools don’t offer a large number of AP courses — whether that’s due to the price tag or not seeing a demand.
“That’s part of making sure that students and families understand what it takes to be competitive in high school when they apply to college,” says Dr. Brett Grant, a postdoctoral fellow with the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Dual Enrollment During The School Day
There are four main ways dual enrollment fits into a school day.
One mode is college in the high school, where a high school teacher is certified to teach a college course. This allows the class to be taught on-site by current staff, and it fits into the student’s regular class schedule, similar to how AP classes are taught.
Another model is a high school partnering with the local community college to bring a professor to the high school during the day, or during an extended-day format. Alternatively, the student can go to the community college, either during the school day or in the evening.
The fourth is a hybrid model, where the class is online either as part of the student’s school day or something they do during out-of-school time.
As for which model a student takes, it depends on the high school and school district.
The school and district decide “how they’re going to make that really accessible to students, how they’re going to connect those courses to a path to post-secondary versus making it random,” Allan says.
Dual Enrollment vs. AP
In most cases, a college professor teaches dual enrollment classes, allowing students to expand their network and be exposed to new, often more rigorous, teaching styles.
And another is the way students earn credit. In AP classes, students must take the AP exam at the end of the year for an additional fee, and then they have to earn specific scores for colleges even to consider them for credit. Whereas, with dual enrollment, students are already taking a college class — all they have to do is transfer the credit.
Dual enrollment classes range in pricing, from free to up to $400, according to Pearson — though this is still significantly less than a traditional college course, which generally costs at least $1,000. And, though the classes themselves don’t cost anything to families if taught in schools, the 2023 AP exams cost between $97-$145.
“For dual enrollment, as soon as you pass the class, you get a transcripted credit,” Allan says. “It is automatically going to move you toward your degree.”
Plus, dual enrollment provides opportunities for students to get access not only to college opportunities, but career-connected college opportunities, says Isa Ellis, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“It can put them on a path to a stackable credential, to accelerate their path toward the workforce and toward a degree — whether a two- or four-year degree, whichever they decide that they want to pursue,” Ellis says.
‘Accelerate Toward Their Degree’
Ultimately, dual enrollment allows students to “accelerate toward their degree, and save time and money,” Allan says. Plus, it helps them get “situated in a mindset and have experiences that build their confidence” that they can and will succeed in college.
“Parents really [need to] understand that this is not meant to be a choice not to go to college or not to traditionally get a Bachelor’s degree,” Allan says. “It’s actually a way to save time and money, and have a higher chance of success along the way.”
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