Readers Respond on Dual Enrollment

Confessions of a Community College Dean

Yesterday’s post about students losing credits from dual enrollment programs when they declare different majors upon transfer drew quite a response.  Apparently it touched a nerve.

Responses fell into several camps.

The most optimistic group offered workarounds.  One common workaround is a legislative mandate that credits must transfer.  (Readers from Pennsylvania and Kentucky offered those.)  Legislative mandates have their place – New Jersey has one for Gen Ed classes if the student graduates with an associate degree – but they don’t really get at the issue of students changing their minds as they get older and see more options.  One worldly reader noted that many European countries “track” students into college prep or trades at age 14 and don’t look back; they might see my concerns about students changing their minds as bizarre.  I’ll admit not having thought of that, but having seen the objection, I’m unpersuaded; part of the point of higher education in America is to expose students to options they didn’t know they had.  To put it differently, you can have early occupational tracking, or you can have social mobility, but you can’t have both.  In the real world, tracking tends to reproduce existing strata.

Others pointed to specifically career-focused early college programs, like P-TECH, as an answer.  It’s true that programs like P-TECH find ways of including both gen ed and applied courses in the early college experience, and that they frequently have excellent job placement results.  For students who know what they want, or are willing to be told what they want, it can be a terrific option.  But it still doesn’t address the student who changes their mind.

I’ll admit some trepidation around building large-scale programs around single employers, given how quickly companies’ fortunes can change.  Growing up in Rochester, NY in the 70’s and 80’s, Kodak looked like a safe bet.  It was not.  Technical training should be portable; the stuff that’s unique to a given company should be that company’s role to provide.

A third camp argued that focusing on whether the credits transfer is missing the point.  If we place weak high school classes with more academically robust dual enrollment classes, then we’re effectively strengthening the academics of the high school.  If the students have to (mostly) start over when they get to college, at least they’ll arrive better prepared.

I used this argument with my kids when they complained about the workload of IB courses and the uncertainty of transfer, depending on scores.  I had to concede the point about uncertainty, but argued that having an intensive academic high school program could only help them with college classes.  After some time in college, The Boy admitted there was some truth to that.  If dual enrollment means that more students arrive in college well-prepared to succeed, that’s no small thing.  It’s probably not the most effective marketing approach for dual enrollment, but the academic in me thrills at the prospect of a better-read population of high school graduates.

The final camp took issue with the premise of dual enrollment, arguing that outside of the occasional math prodigy or the equivalent, it shouldn’t exist.  The argument took a few forms.  One was substantive: high school courses hone skills necessary for success in college courses, so skipping those high school courses will likely lead to students performing poorly in the college courses.  (On this point, I’ll add that experience has taught the necessity of scaling up tutoring services for dual enrollment classes.)  Another was historical: community colleges grew out of high schools, which is why many of them still use terms like “district” or “superintendent.”  To the extent that dual enrollment grows, the distinction between high school and college starts to blur, and not necessarily for the better.  If students can get the associate degree in high school and then move directly to a four-year school, why have community colleges at all?

I’ve heard this argument from college faculty.  (One memorably declared “if I had wanted to teach high school, I would have taught high school.”)  Even allowing for some hyperbole and a whiff of status anxiety, there’s a worthwhile caution embedded in these concerns.  Dual enrollment can serve many purposes, some of them contradictory.  Clarity of purpose is key; without it, the force of budgetary gravity can compel decisions that are rational in the short term and devastating in the long term.

Thanks to my wise and worldly readers for expanding the discussion so thoughtfully! I’m grateful to everyone who took the time to write.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Tuesday, August 30, 2022
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Tuesday, August 30, 2022