Since the early 2000s, the number of high school students participating in dual enrollment—a model that allows students to take college courses for college credit while still in high school—has increased dramatically. In 2003, approximately 1.2 million students participated in dual enrollment, and nearly ten years afterwards the figure blossomed to 2 million, according to a recent report from the Community College Research Center. On the surface, this appears to be good news, as research suggests students who participate in dual enrollment are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, and earn degrees than their peers.
While dual enrollment is a promising model to broaden educational opportunities for all students, particularly for low-income students and students of color—as demonstrated by the outcomes of programs like the Early College High School Initiative—access to opportunity is still woefully inequitable.
As early as ten years ago, research conducted in Pennsylvania sounded the alarm that dual enrollment programs were not reaching all students equally. Throughout the commonwealth, black and Latinx students were underrepresented in dual enrollment; black students comprised 15 percent of public high school enrollment, yet comprised 5 percent of dual enrollers. Similarly, Latinx students constituted 5 percent of the public high school enrollment, yet amounted to just 2 percent of dual enrollers.
Comparatively, white students in the Pennsylvania study were overrepresented in dual enrollment offerings. While they constituted 78 percent of the public high school population in the same academic year, they amounted to 90 percent of dual enrollment students. Students from impoverished communities made up 20 percent of dual enrollers while students from more affluent families made up 69 percent of dual enrollers.
In August of this year, RAND Corp produced a study surveying dual enrollment programs in Texas, as the state expanded access to dual enrollment over the past two decades. The report found that as the number of dual enrollment students increased, the racial and economic gaps in participation increased, advantaging the white and wealthy (a second phase of the RAND study analyzing potential causes of these disparities is forthcoming). Nor is Texas alone—another recent report from Institute of Educational Sciences found significant disparities in Oregon, where dual enrollment students at community colleges were typically white, female, and high achievers who did not originate from low-income backgrounds.
The data above paint a distressing picture of how opportunities continue to be denied to non-white, non-wealthy high schoolers. Dual enrollment helps students prepare for, succeed in, and graduate from college, and it reduces the cost and time to completion of a degree. Leaving students of color—black, Latinx and etc.—shut out of such high-value programs comes at a serious cost to them, only serving to reinforce existing inequalities.
For instance, in 2013, the total university enrollment for 18 to 24-year-olds was 42 percent for white students compared to the 34 percent of black and Latinx students. From 2003 to 2013 (roughly coinciding with a rapid growth period of dual enrollment students) the National Center for Education Statistics found that the white-black gap in university enrollment did not significantly change—which could in part reflect inequities in dual enrollment access.
Research clearly shows that when dual enrollment programs are implemented with equity in mind, they have significant potential to increase access to opportunity for low income students and students of color. At the same time, research also clearly shows that most states are far from achieving equity in access to dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment is unlikely to advance equity across all states without legislation including provisions—whether federal, state or local—that prioritizes access and support for low-income students and students of color.
Take, for instance, Minnesota, which subsidizes tuition for dual enrollment through the state, leaving little to no cost for students. Though Minnesota is not the only state working to remove economic barriers to dual enrollment, more states need to adopt these practices. At the federal level, policymakers should also ensure that low income dual enrollment students can access their Pell Grants to pay for dual enrollment without encroaching on their lifetime eligibility limit.
States must also consider holistic policy changes to ensure that all students are well prepared for dual enrollment. Accordingly, PreK-8 pipelines in low-income communities and communities of color need to be strengthened with more effective teachers and curriculum. More state-level data and research, disaggregated by race, income, and gender, is also needed to monitor access to and outcomes of dual enrollment programing in order to hold education systems accountable for serving all students.
Equitable access and participation of dual enrollment only follows intentional inclusion of the historically marginalized. The exclusion of low income communities and communities of color only stagnates or —worse yet—inflames disparities.