How to Earn College Credit Through Dual Enrollment

When high school students hear the term dual enrollment, the meaning can be ambiguous. Dual enrollment opportunities can vary widely in terms of how such programs are administered, what credits are earned and the intended result for students.

So what does dual enrollment mean, exactly?

“There are so many terms out there that it is easy to get confused,” Amy Williams, executive director of the educational nonprofit National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, wrote in an email. She lists several terms used in addition to dual enrollment, including concurrent enrollment, dual credit, running start and early college.

Defining Dual Enrollment

“Dual enrollment is a catch all term to describe programs that allow high school students early access to college courses,” Williams says. “As such, they are partnerships between a high school or school district and accredited institutions of higher education to provide high school students the opportunity to earn transcripted college credits before they graduate high school.”

[See: What Are the Right Choices in College Admissions?]

Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, notes that dual enrollment can mean different things “but the most common meaning is that one course counts in two places,” he says. “So a student who takes a dual enrollment history class gets credit both for high school history and for college history.”

How Dual Enrollment Works

Since partnerships can vary by high school, what’s offered in one district may differ from another. Some dual enrollment programs are taught in high school with teachers providing instruction for college-level courses. Other programs send high school students to a college campus. Sometimes college professors teach within high schools. Additionally, there are options for online instruction.

“Different districts have different needs,” Reed says. “Some, for example, have a lot of faculty who have master’s degrees in the disciplines they’re teaching, which means that they are qualified to be adjuncts for us. Some of them don’t, so we have to find other ways to make that work.”

Reed also notes that “some want a STEM focus,” referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while “others want a business focus, (and) some want a liberal arts grounding.”

The most common method for dual enrollment is students learning within their high school from a teacher on staff who is qualified to teach college-level courses, says Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, which is housed in the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

Barnett points to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which indicates that the vast majority of dual enrollment students take classes at their high school compared with fewer than 1 in 5 who do so on college campuses. A small percentage of dual enrollment students take college courses at other high schools or online.

The number of credits a student can earn through dual enrollment is also program-dependent. Depending on what is offered in partnership with their high school, students may earn only a handful of college credits in some programs, up to 30 credits in others and as many as 60 credits in programs aimed at helping students acquire an associate degree as part of the dual enrollment experience.

Paying for Dual Enrollment

The opportunity to earn an associate degree in high school can be both personally and economically rewarding. Earning such a credential proves that the student is ready for college-level work and can help ease the pain of paying for college by transferring credits to a four-year school, which can possibly halve the cost of a bachelor’s degree if 60 credits are accepted.

But like almost everything else with dual enrollment, how to pay for college credits racked up in high school varies.

“There’s a fair amount of variation, and some of it depends on state policies. In some states (dual enrollment) is either actively encouraged and or paid for by the state,” Barnett explains. “When students don’t have to pay anything for dual enrollment, it’s more popular, and when schools don’t lose money by sending their students to the college, it’s more popular.”

Given how dual enrollment price tags may differ, experts advise students to seek out their high school counselor to get a sense of program costs. Barnett also notes that there may be additional costs for transportation to the college or for required books. To keep program costs down, high schools most commonly partner with community colleges to offer affordable options, Barnett says.

[See: 10 Reasons to Attend a Community College vs. University.]

Williams adds that scholarships may also be available to cover tuition or other expenses, such as transportation and books.

How to Participate in Dual Enrollment Programs

How students are selected to take part in dual enrollment programs also varies by high school. Academic requirements are assessed by the high school, not the college, experts say, and the length of the program will likely determine the age at which a student can enroll.

The starting point, experts emphasize, is the high school counselor, who can explain program costs and eligibility and answer questions. Counselors can also explain the type of programs available and the number of credits students can possibly earn.

“Students who see the appeal would be well advised to reach out to the guidance department as early as they can, whether that’s in eighth grade or ninth grade,” Reed says.

“Depending on the model they might get told to come back in two years, but that’s OK,” he says. “The 30-credit models typically start in the 11th grade. Dual enrollment is so variable, that there’s not really one thing that you would point to and say, ‘everybody does that.’ For example, dual enrollment doesn’t have to, by definition, result in a degree.”

It’s typically up to the high school to determine eligibility requirements to participate in dual enrollment programs.

“These vary by state and can vary by district/high school,” Williams says. “Some states have state-set requirements for standardized tests scores, high school GPA, or other elements. Others require students to be at a specific grade level or age, to have completed a particular series of high school classes, or have a teacher’s recommendation.”

She adds that students can compare state eligibility requirements on the Education Commission of the States website.

Weigh Dual Enrollment Against Other Credit Options

Students can earn college credit a number of ways beyond dual enrollment, such as by taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams or participating in the College-Level Examination Program. But colleges don’t always accept all credit options.

[Read: IB vs. AP: Discover the Differences.]

Students who want to make sure their college credits are counted toward a four-year degree should research articulation agreements, experts say. Reed notes that some states have legally binding transfer agreements that require four-year colleges to honor credits earned via dual enrollment.

Generally, colleges are more likely to give credit for general education rather than specialized courses. Graduating from a dual enrollment program will also increase the likelihood of those credits being accepted, Reed adds.

What Dual Enrollment Means for College Admissions

In addition to possibly compressing time in college, participating in dual enrollment may also offer an admissions boost.

“In some cases, college admissions seems to favor students with AP credits. But on the other hand, lots of students take AP courses and don’t pass the AP exams,” Barnett says. “With dual enrollment, if you pass the college course, you’ve got transcripted college credit.”

Experts also suggest that completing college courses shows that students are ready to make the leap from high school to the next level: postsecondary coursework.

“Nothing proves the ability to handle college-level work better than handling college-level work,” Reed says.

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