Dual enrollment lets high-schoolers get a head start on college

Dual enrollment has grown by 65% since 2015, creating a pipeline of students for higher education facilities in Alabama

The line between high school and college has blurred as more Alabama students do both at the same time. Dual enrollment saves time and money for students and their parents across a wide range of technical and academic courses of study.

Dual enrollment in the Alabama Community College System has grown by 65% since the Legislature expanded funding through the Education Trust Fund in 2015.

In the 2022-23 school year, 27,562 high school students were participating in some form of dual enrollment. The number made up about 18% of the more than 155,000 community college students statewide.

“Dual enrollment at one time was considered an opportunity for your high academic achieving, your high performing students,” says Tessa Brown, assistant director of strategic enrollment management – early programs for ACCS.

Today, the emphasis is on preparation for the workforce. “We have a lot more inclusive strategies for dual enrollment in the state of Alabama,” Brown says.

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As a result, high school students may enroll in one or more of 1,200 courses including career technical, health sciences and traditional academic subjects like math and English, she says. They get high school and college credit at the same time or leave high school with technical skills that make them ready to join the workforce in a career-oriented position. Depending on the students’ goals, they can even graduate high school with an associate degree or with credits toward a four-year university degree.

Advanced Placement classes, which students can take in high school for college credit based on a year-end test, can also be combined with dual enrollment course work but differ in several ways. Students and their parents need to investigate their options.

Dual enrollment relies on partnerships among individual colleges and high schools, which collaborate on what is offered and how it is offered. Students can take classes online, at a college with an instructor or at a high school with a high school teacher who also has the credentials to be an adjunct with the college.

Tessa Brown, assistant director of strategic enrollment management – early programs for the Alabama Community College System.

“Those partnerships are not just with public schools,” Brown says. “We have dual enrollment partnerships with private schools, with parochial schools, religious schools, church schools, home-school students. We actually have a significant amount of home-school students that take dual enrollment as well.”

Alabama public universities accept community college credits for transfer, allowing students flexibility to shorten their stays at four-year schools, select double majors or begin graduate studies sooner than they otherwise could have.

The cost savings are undeniable. Brown says the average tuition at a community college is $168 per credit hour, while a four-year in-state university may cost twice as much. But with dual enrollment, students may not have to pay anything because of the amount of legislative funding, scholarships, support of local foundations and other forms of financial aid.

The Legislature appropriated $30 million for dual enrollment in the 2024 fiscal year, an increase of $4.5 million, Brown says.

“Our legislators definitely see the benefit that dual enrollment has for these students and for the workforce. That funding has steadily increased since it started in 2015.”

Brown believes dual enrollment also creates opportunities for students who otherwise might not have them, such as those who are the first in their families to attend college, those who need financial help to make it and those who thought college was just not possible for them. The system lets students who may be part of an underserved population because of gender, race or economic disparities consider the possibilities and close those gaps.

“Maybe they just didn’t think they were college material because that’s not part of their environment,” Brown says.  “What we see is that when those students are introduced to higher education through the dual enrollment experience, they excel. They are truly breaking barriers.”

How does it work?

High school sophomores, juniors and seniors are eligible to take community college coursework with the approval of a principal or other official. They must show a 2.5 grade point average on the traditional 4.0 scale to be eligible for an academic course or a 2.0 for technical courses. The GPA requirement allows 9th-graders to ease the transition from middle school and gives a student who may have an academic misstep another chance.

“Some would say it sounds like we’ve lowered the bar,” Brown says. “I don’t think it’s lowering the bar so much as it is removing a barrier.”

Students also need qualifying scores on the ACT test and possibly on placement tests. Guidance counselors are a crucial part of the process in helping students determine their pathways to graduation, their goals after high school and whether and what kind of dual enrollment classes will best fit them.

Recruiting is also collaborative between individual colleges and high schools. Colleges will likely send representatives to speak to groups of students and to parents at a parents’ night.

Tom Hartner, secondary coordinator for the Baldwin County Public School System.

Often the students themselves seek out dual enrollment for technical or academic tracks they want to pursue, says Tom Hartner, secondary coordinator for the Baldwin County public school system.

Baldwin County has more than 31,000 students and is one of the fastest growing counties in Alabama. Demand is especially high for technically skilled graduates who can fill job openings as soon as they walk across the stage.

“Our goal is if they graduate on a Friday they can start on a Monday and be making a very good wage in a high-paying job,” Hartner says.

On the academic side Baldwin County has had students who have graduated with one or more years of college course work completed, sometimes without paying. “They can be racking up a lot of college credits before they even walk across the stage and get their high school diploma.”

With the costs of higher education ever rising, the financial advantages are obvious, not only in out-of-pocket costs but in reduced student debt, Hartner says. “The money that that will save alone is just staggering.”

Baldwin County has dual enrollment partnership agreements with Coastal Alabama Community College, the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama, Hartner says. The public school system is studying ACT data to see where graduates are enrolling and whether more partnerships are needed.

Most of the dual enrollment course work is done online in Baldwin County, as high school students aren’t allowed to leave campus during the school day. Exceptions include night classes, which can be taken at a Coastal campus, and some technical courses at the public schools’ technology centers in the northern and southern parts of the county.

Students doing online work get a study period supervised by a facilitator, who is important in ensuring success. Hartner says the facilitator is available to answer questions and monitor individuals to make sure they are correctly enrolled and completing assignments competently. Coastal also monitors progress closely and lets the high school know if a student has a problem.

Students who are focused and motivated are most likely to do well with dual enrollment, Hartner says.

“Most of the kids that are successful in these classes are goal-oriented,” he says. “They know what their end game is. They’re organized. They’re going to knock out the work. They don’t need someone sitting over them.”

They aren’t going to be coddled, but dual enrollment will serve as a transition for some between high school and college, Hartner says.

Drawbacks to dual enrollment are few, but they do exist. The main problem is what happens if the student can’t — or doesn’t — do the work. A student who drops a class or fails establishes a record that can follow him or her throughout post-secondary education. Further, the student must sit out a semester before reapplying for dual enrollment. Any financial aid may be lost. And a student who was also filling a high school graduation requirement with the class may have to repeat the course in high school summer school or online.

Students must know the risks and the consequences going in, Hartner says. “If you slip up, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to go on your college transcript.”

Students taking college classes online also need a certain amount of technical savvy, and some students simply don’t learn well online. And those who aren’t committed to enrolling in a state public college or university will need to check on whether the private schools or out-of-state schools they are considering will accept dual enrollment credit, just as they need to check on individual university requirements for AP test scores.

Both Brown and Hartner emphasize that students in dual enrollment programs may still be in high school, but they are also college students with the responsibilities and need for self-motivation that college entails. The opportunities, however, are rewarding and they continue to expand across Alabama.

Jane Nicholes is a Daphne-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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