Imagine finishing your associate degree before you get a high school diploma. That’s been the life path for a small but growing number of students in recent years in states like Colorado and Minnesota that have been ramping up dual-enrollment efforts between high schools and community colleges, through which high school students take courses for college credit.
While receiving an associate degree before a high school diploma is a particularly exceptional result, the ultimate goal of such programs is somewhat more modest: giving high school students an early start toward a certificate, an associate degree or something beyond faster than they otherwise would have, building a bridge toward higher education before they have stepped out of high school.
In Colorado, the number of high school students participating in dual enrollment at community colleges has skyrocketed, from 7,405 in the 2008-09 academic year, to 24,261 in 2016-17 (41,857 if you include four-year schools), after the state made a concerted effort to offer college-level courses that are physically located at high schools, known as concurrent enrollment.
In 2015-16, the state’s community colleges awarded 1,100 certificates and 300 associate degrees to high school students, and the percentage of overall community college headcount comprising high school students has risen, from 11.9 percent in 2012-13, to 20.6 percent in 2017-18, ranging from more than 40 percent to less than 10 percent.
Minnesota has offered dual enrollment since 1985 and might be the first state to do so, says Jessica Espinosa, director of college transitions at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MSCU). During fiscal year 2018, 32,489 students were participating in dual enrollment across the state at two-year schools (43,311 including four-year schools), the majority of them (18,483 for community colleges, 28,519 including universities) in concurrent enrollment at their high schools, a figure that has doubled in the past decade since the legislature began appropriating funds to school districts to offer such courses.
“From students’ and families’ standpoint, and high schools, it’s highly successful,” Espinosa says. “These students perform well. They outperform their peers in terms of performance, persistence, all of those indicators. Families love it because in Minnesota, high school students are not allowed to be charged for any participation in the program — it’s free to students and families, including textbooks, tuition, everything else. With the rising costs of higher education, it’s definitely a ‘win’ from that standpoint.”
Focusing on concurrent enrollment has expanded access beyond upper-middle-income students at suburban schools who had a greater ability to attend courses on a college campus, says Joseph Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, who served on a task force a decade ago — when he was president of Pikes Peak Community College — which recommended widening opportunities and helped spur legislation funding them.
“The idea was that if more students could access it, more could finish high school college-ready,” Garcia says. “We saw dramatic increases in Hispanic, African-American, urban and rural enrollment. It grew 4,000 percent in the Hispanic community in the first three years, and it grew dramatically overall.”
About one-quarter of the state’s juniors and seniors are enrolled in at least one concurrent enrollment course, he adds.
The program is offered at all community colleges in the state and most high school districts, with varying levels of participation, says Landon Pirius, vice chancellor for student and academic affairs. About one-third of students are enrolled in career and technical education, and the rest are in liberal arts and transfer-oriented disciplines, he says. They start as early as sophomore year of high school.
“A student who has some college credit is more likely to go to college and more likely to compete their degree,” Pirius says. “We see concurrent enrollment as that gateway. It changes their mindset. People who think they’re not college material change their minds once they have credit. We see it as a success tool.”
Dual enrollment prompts school districts and colleges to communicate better and be more thoughtful about laying down pathways in general, Espinosa says.
“We have a lot of innovation going on in the space, asking K-12 and higher ed to work together,” she says.
In Minnesota, that’s ranged from early college initiatives that provide an intentional path to an associate degree, to career and technical education models that involve private industry partners and internships, says Greg Rathert, interim director of P-20 and college readiness for MSCU.
“Moving forward, there’s more interest in that type of model, given the state of the economy, the projected state of need for middle-skills jobs, and the overall need for an increasingly trained, educated workforce,” he says.
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