John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“Turning the Ship Around, Part 3. Dual Enrollment

Betsy Barefoot, EdDVice President & Senior Scholar
In Parts 1 and 2 of “Turning the Ship Around,” I reflected on my personal high school experience and the disturbing changes I see today, especially in the quality of the senior year.  But now I want to acknowledge that colleges and universities are taking the bull by the horns and inserting challenge back into high school curricula through dual enrollment programs. 
These programs take two primary forms:  Students can take college courses on the high school campus taught by college instructors or “certified” high school instructors, or students can take these courses on a college or university campus.  With state and private foundation support, the number of dual enrollment programs is expanding dramatically and I fear without too much thought about some of the implications, both academic and social. 
Here is a case in point:  In the state of Virginia, dual enrollment courses are offered through the Virginia Community College System.  Sometimes they are taught by college instructors; sometimes by high school instructors who have been certified by the college.  Students are encouraged to “jump start” their college career by enrolling in these courses.  But not all Virginia four-year institutions believe these courses are credible and accept them for transfer credit.  So a student who believes that he or she is getting ahead may find ultimately that the time and effort was wasted.  Apparently there are no guarantees at the point of transfer to a four-year institution. Every state is different, and Virginia may be the only example of an unintentional “bait and switch” problem.  I don’t know.  
What about social issues?  A recent conversation with a Georgia mother who also happens to be a university employee introduced me to some of the social dynamics inherent in dual enrollment.  This mother has a daughter in high school who has been taking university courses.  The daughter is understandably lonely and isolated on the university campus.  But when she wants to join after-hours study groups at a local watering hole with her college-age classmates, mom is understandably resistant.  Mom wants the daughter to make friends, but in an atmosphere that is more appropriate for a high-schooler.  As more and more colleges open their doors to 16 and 17 year olds, what will be the implications for the social environment? 
I believe that dual enrollment programs may provide an answer to increasing the level of challenge available to high school students.  Early research also shows them to be a promising strategy to increase college enrollment and retention.  But before we rush headlong into this new world, I do believe we need to take a step back and consider the implications, both social and academic.  Are we on college and university campuses ready to take on this new population?  Are college courses delivered in high schools aligned with our expectations through the four-year degree?  How does dual enrollment change our concept of “the first-year experience”?  Lots of questions that deserve our time and attention – so that we can turn the ship around.

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