How to Help Dual Enrollment Increase Education Equity

To us, equity is about ensuring that if some students are given a head start that the rest are not left behind. This means that we must pay close attention to which students gain from new innovations or opportunities and which students are likely to be left even further behind because those same chances are not offered to them.

In that vein, a newly-released report from the U.S. Department of Education (and ensuing coverage via Education Week) caught our attention. The study found that minority students and first-generation students are less likely to take courses in high school that also award them college credit. These courses are commonly referred to as “dual enrollment.”

There is additional research that fills in the picture. Whether students participate in dual enrollment courses is as much a by-product of where they live as their own interests in and readiness for such courses. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education, “fewer high schools with high percentages of students of color offer advanced coursework opportunities than do high schools with low populations of students of color.” The findings confirm the need to think more holistically about how to close gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement. Let’s start with some examples of how certain states approached the problem from the supply side.

To increase the number of underserved students taking dual enrollment courses, states such as Indiana, Montana, and Minnesota have initiated equity-minded policies that award scholarships and other incentives to high school teachers so that they can earn the appropriate credential to make those courses available in their schools. More dual enrollment-eligible high school teachers, especially in resource-strapped districts, not only increases access to such coursework but also expands the breadth of offerings. In Iowa, North Carolina, and Utah, virtual academies are bringing college courses to rural high school students who do not live near a community college or university. Both are encouraging developments that will bear even more fruit in the coming years.

But the lack of dual enrollment-qualified high school teachers can only explain some of the gaps. Another contributing factor is costs. According to the Education Commission of the States, nine states place some or all of the financial burden of taking these courses on parents and students. In 25 other states, the question of ‘who pays?’ is a somewhat confusing hodge-podge of local, state, institutional, and familial sources. The lack of clarity and transparency presents a significant barrier to entry, especially for students from low-income families.

One innovative approach to mitigate cost as a barrier to dual enrollment courses is Pell grants. ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning recently hosted a convening which gathered several postsecondary institutions involved in the Dual Enrollment-Pell Grants Experimental Sites initiative.

This multi-year initiative allows a number of postsecondary institutions to award Pell grants to high school students with limited means to enable them to participate in dual enrollment programs. ACT researchers, along with economists from Stanford University, are conducting the evaluation of this one-of-its-kind initiative. The hope is that, if there are positive outcomes, Pell grants could be an important resource for families and lead to policy changes that expand opportunities and close equity gaps.

We urge school leaders and civic leaders to elevate the conversation about what goals are academically possible for students from underserved and/or minority backgrounds. We know that roughly 95 percent of students aspire to a college degree when they begin high school, and those aspirations are as high for students from poorer neighborhoods. But it is clear that opportunities and supports are not as equitably available to these students. We also need to look more broadly at potential solutions—from new funding sources, such as scholarships to promising students and dual enrollment-interested teachers, to alternative-and-accredited instructional delivery models to reach students no matter where they live. As identified in our previous research on the digital divide and access to technology for rural students, equalizing access to technology so more students can access dual enrollment courses is a good place to start. Let us begin by ensuring that all students have access to rigorous learning experiences and well-supported teachers who can guide their learning.

Jim Larimore is the Chief Officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning and Gregory Kienzl is a Principal Strategist on the State and Federal Programs team. If you’d like to learn more about ACT’s State and Federal Programs’ policy recommendations on a variety of issues facing K-12, higher education, career and technical education, and workforce development, please download our policy platforms here