A college degree is both increasingly valued and difficult to achieve in the United States. And with the Supreme Court potentially overturning affirmative action later this year, higher education could be even more unattainable for Black and Brown students nationwide.
But there is a solution that students can take advantage of while still enrolled in high school: dual enrollment classes. These classes allow high school students to take select college courses for college credit — in some cases, students can earn the college credit equivalent of an associate’s degree at the same time they receive their high school diploma.
“Dual enrollment will become even more important [if affirmative action is overturned] because that’ll be a way that students can enhance their competitive edge when applying to college,” says Dr. Brett Grant, a postdoctoral fellow with the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University. “So I’m sure it’s going to become more prominent.”
Without the “diversity rationale,” Grant says, the other aspects of a students’ college application can become more critical, like extracurriculars and courses.
“If they do get rid of the diversity rationale, the other components of the holistic review process are going to mean that much,” Grant says. “Dual enrollment will be a way that students can continue to make themselves more competitive.”
These Opportunities Aren’t Reaching Black Students
The problem with dual enrollment — and it providing students with a way to pad out their academic resumes — is that it isn’t reaching Black and Brown students.
“Like so many other parts of our society, our children of color do not have equitable access to these courses,” says Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. “It widens the achievement gap.”
A 2020 report from The Aspen Institute and Teachers College at Columbia University found that, on average, about 12% of white students participate in dual enrollment programs, compared to only 8% of Hispanic students and 7% of Black students. The report’s authors wrote that “dual enrollment can also exacerbate disadvantages when it is not designed with equity as a primary goal.”
“We have to do some work in terms of the equity lens and how we make things fair for all of our students,” Ingram says. “We need to make sure that we promote these dual enrollment classes in a way that we can get a more diverse group of students enrolled.”
The Community College Research Center, an independent research organization at Teachers College, has a project underway that will create a framework “of how to design your dual enrollment system between high schools and colleges to make sure that it is really made accessible to Black students, Latino students, Indigenous students, others who have been systematically excluded,” says Sara Allan, director of Early Learning and Pathways at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This includes a variety of steps “that can help make students from different backgrounds feel like this is for them, and see themselves in the program,” Allan says. The framework will also help sort out “hidden barriers to some groups of students being able to succeed in dual enrollment.”
In terms of spreading the word about dual enrollment, the responsibility for doing that falls on all levels: the partner colleges, school administrators, counselors, faculty, and even the students and parents. But this also assumes that majority-Black schools have these resources at all, let alone equal access.
“The schools that are in affluent areas, they’re going to have access to these resources, and the counselors know what it takes to get into these competitive universities,” Grant says. “And at these other schools that don’t have access to as many resources, I’m sure the students aren’t tracked into those pathways and don’t have access to that knowledge. And it’s a shame.”
And dual enrollment is growing in popularity: student enrollment increased by 11% between spring 2021 and spring 2023, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Across the country, about 88% of high schools offer dual enrollment opportunities, and about 34% of students are enrolled, according to a blog post from the U.S. Department of Education.
“That in itself lets us know that people not only want these classes, but they see the value in this class,” Ingram says.
Expert Advice For Pursuing Dual Enrollment
The biggest piece of advice Ingram offers to parents is to stay involved. Know and understand what your child wants to do, and work through this educational process with them as a joint effort.
“If you have a student that is mature, that is of high academic standards, that is looking for a more challenging or rigorous type of academic setting, then those dual enrollment classes are absolutely great,” Ingram says.
He cautions, though, that dual enrollment courses aren’t for everybody.
“Everybody’s not going to take dual enrollment classes, and neither do I advocate that everybody does that,” Ingram says. “It is specific to students who want to have a more rigorous challenge in their academic experience.”
And part of your family’s research should be calculating the cost of these classes — both in terms of supplies and any registration fees, but also transportation to get to the classroom.
“Dual enrollment classes are costly,” Ingram says. “You’re talking about what it takes to educate a child, and now do it on an entirely different level.”
A good place to start researching is through Upward Bound, run out of the U.S. Department of Education, Grant says. Or reach out directly to local community colleges to learn about their dual enrollment process for high school students.
And make sure to follow up if dual enrollment isn’t offered, says Isa Ellis, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“If those opportunities are not available, ask why,” Ellis says. “It’s really important for parents to understand that they are empowered to ask not if they’re just available, but why they aren’t available, and what it will take for those opportunities to be available within their school and within their school district.”
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