Programs that allow high school students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school are growing fast. In addition to familiar options like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and early college high school—otherwise known as college in high school programs–are increasingly popular models in states.
Many states are turning to these dual enrollment models to improve access to and success in postsecondary programs. In 2019 alone, eighteen governors discussed how high school students could earn college credit in their “State of the State” addresses, and new laws passed so far in more than sixteen states addressed aspects of these programs.
Yet concerns remain about inequitable access to these opportunities. Even as the programs themselves have exploded in recent years, students who are white or Asian and whose parents already have a college education were much more likely to participate than their peers. A new tool released by the Community College Research Center also shows gaps in dual-enrollment participation between white, black, and Hispanic students.
As access expands, it is also critical that quality remains high. Research demonstrates that when designed well, these programs result in strong postsecondary completion outcomes. When designed poorly, however, they undermine the important principle that students should earn credits that will move them appreciably towards a college degree or postsecondary credential.
Policymakers across the country are asking how they can address these equity gaps and promote better quality. Toward this dual end, the College in High School Alliance and the Level Up coalition, which our respective organizations manage, have published Unlocking Potential: A State Policy Roadmap for Equity and Quality in College in High School Programs to support states in designing policy to drive meaningful change in access, equity, and quality in their college in high school programs.
Such policies should address six critical components:
- Equity goal and public reporting: States set a well-publicized policy goal of increasing the participation and success of traditionally underserved student groups and develop clear public reporting and accountability for progress toward that goal.
- Program integrity and credit transfer: States support and promote high-quality college in high school programs through effective oversight and collaboration between the K–12 and postsecondary sectors, as well as ensure credit articulation.
- Finance: States design funding mechanisms that remove financial barriers for low- and moderate-income students to participate in college-level work while still in high school.
- Course access and availability: States ensure that students are able to participate in such programs and courses regardless of where they live, with pathways that maximize opportunities for students to earn multiple college credits. States also support students who are exploring areas of academic and career interest while ensuring that those courses count toward graduation requirements.
- Instructor capacity: States develop strategies to recruit, support, and diversify the pool of instructors with qualifications to teach college courses in the high schools.
- Navigational supports: States prioritize the navigational supports and advising that are needed to ensure student success in such courses, particularly for students historically underserved by these programs.
Too many policymakers and stakeholders are looking for one quick fix—addressing financing, fixing teacher credentialing, or ensuring credit transfer—rather than looking holistically across the policy spectrum to consider how the state’s totality of policies and regulations impact equity and quality. Just making programs like these free is not enough to boost their equity and quality if eligibility requirements lock out underrepresented students with the talent to succeed or if an instructor shortage limits program access only to urban areas. One of the core messages of Unlocking Potential is that all these policy realms fit together and are in fact interdependent. The challenge ahead is to understand how these issues are connected, rather than placing each issue in a silo.
College in-high school programs hold much promise, but that promise can only be realized when equity gaps are eliminated and the programs become available to all students who can benefit from them. Collectively, the partners that make up our coalitions stand ready to engage with state policymakers and practitioners to unlock the potential of every student for college success.