A new American Institutes for Research report takes an in-depth look at Texas’s dual-credit programs, which allow high school students to enroll in a college-level course and receive simultaneous academic credit from both their high school and a college. This is the second phase of a two-year study. The first phase was conducted by RAND, and is currently in the midst of a public comment period that the authors plan to use to shape “practical policy recommendations.” The analysis focuses primarily on “traditional” dual-credit education programs delivered by community colleges, which means that academic dual-credit courses are offered through regular high schools, not early-college high schools.

Texas is an ideal state to conduct such a study because its dual-credit landscape has grown dramatically. From 2000 to 2016, the number of high schoolers taking at least one dual-credit course rose from 18,524 to 204,286, an increase of more than 1,100 percent. There are two reasons for this growth: First, state legislation has made it easier for more students to participate. Second, colleges and universities have taken advantage of expanding access by promoting dual-credit as a strategy to improve college access and completion.

The phase-two report is a whopping five chapters, but this particular review will focus only on the first, which contains quantitative analysis of three research questions: Which factors contributed to racial and ethnic disparities in dual-credit participation? To what extent did dual-credit education increase college enrollment, credential attainment, and efficient degree completion? And what changes in dual-credit participation, success, and delivery have occurred since the passage of the state’s HB 505, which in 2015 removed limitations on the number of dual-credit courses a student may take during high school and during each academic year, and expanded dual-credit access to ninth and tenth grade students?

To answer these questions, the authors tracked Texas public school students through high school and into public colleges or universities in the state using databases from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA), as well as data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

RAND’s phase-one report documented disparities in dual-credit participation across race and ethnicity and mainly found that white and Asian students had higher participation rates than their black and Hispanic peers. The phase-two report seeks to build on these findings by using descriptive analyses to assess how six different factors could have contributed to these gaps, including: access to dual-credit across high schools; academic preparation as measured by scores on state math and reading achievement tests in the eighth grade; income as measured by eligibility for free or reduced price lunch (FRPL); access to alternative forms of advanced coursework like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses; access to tuition and fee waivers; and the type of high school a student attended.

Overall, the analyses suggest that if underrepresented minorities were equally prepared academically, had similar incomes to, and attended similar schools as white students—schools that are well-resourced, actively promote dual-credit opportunities, and do a good job of academic preparation—then gaps in dual-credit participation would be quite small.

The phase-one report focused on data from before the implementation of HB 505, but the phase-two report examines changes in student participation and outcomes, as well as dual-credit course delivery post-HB 505. Results show that the overall participation rate held relatively steady, while participation among ninth and tenth graders increased significantly from 1 percent to 2.1 percent for ninth graders and from 2.7 percent to 4.3 percent for tenth graders. Course offerings also remained about the same, with the most common courses being English composition, government, history, economics, and college algebra. The percentage of courses that were taught face-to-face and on college campuses held steady, as did the share of courses that were academic versus part of a career and technical education program. Results show little evidence that the academic preparation of dual-credit participants changed overall; participants scored above the statewide average on eight grade math and reading standardized tests before and after HB 505. But the academic preparation of ninth and tenth graders declined even though they continued to score above average. The data also show slightly higher grades in dual-credit courses since HB 505, especially for ninth graders. Because the academic preparation of ninth and tenth graders has declined, the authors suspect that instructors lowered standards to prevent success rates from dropping.

Although the initial study found that dual-credit students had higher college enrollment rates after they graduated from high school and were significantly more likely to persist in and complete college than students who did not participate, it did not determine whether these benefits were directly attributable to their participation in dual-credit programs or another factor. To answer this question, the authors designed a quasi-experimental analysis to compare outcomes for similar students with the only difference being access to and enrollment in dual-credit courses. They controlled for observable student characteristics such as race and ethnicity, FRPL eligibility, eighth grade standardized test scores, and differences across high schools. Results confirmed that dual-credit participants enjoyed better outcomes than non-participants, but the differences on a variety of outcomes were driven by self-selection—unobservable characteristics of students who enrolled in dual-credit programs. Indeed, self-selection caused most of the observable differences between participants and non-participants when it came to high school completion, college enrollment rates, and college completion rates. There was also no increase in college completion at two- or four-year colleges among black and Hispanic students, though participation did increase enrollment at two-year colleges. And participation created large negative effects on most outcomes for students who were FRPL eligible—a result the authors say is likely due to lower academic preparation levels among low-income students.

Unsurprisingly, the data show that students with better academic preparation benefit more from their participation in dual-credit programs. And although dual-credit participation improved a variety of student outcomes on average, the causal impact analysis shows that the effects are far more modest than previous reports—including the phase-one report—suggest. The upshot is that dual-credit serves academically prepared kids really well. Kids who aren’t as well prepared? Maybe not.

SOURCE: Trey Miller et al., “Dual-Credit Education Programs in Texas: Phase II,” American Institutes for Research (July 2018).

Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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