Improving student success, shortening time to degree, and reducing the cost of a degree are all issues that are top-of-mind for college and university leaders. And to help address these challenges, many are embracing dual enrollment as a valuable tool to help drive meaningful improvements in each of these areas.

What Is Dual Enrollment?

Dual enrollment, also called dual credit or concurrent enrollment, is a program that allows high school students to simultaneously enroll in college — and complete college courses — while still in high school. Unlike advanced placement (AP) courses, dual enrollment requires a student to enroll at college or university, even if the courses they take are offered on their high school campus. And the courses they take count for both high school and college credit.

Initially positioned as a way to combat “senioritis” in high school students, dual enrollment has been around since the 1950s. But it’s recently seen a surge in popularity, growing 68% between 2002-3 and 2010-11 academic years. According to the latest data from NACEP, today, nine out of ten high schools offer college courses and one out of every three high school students is taking them.

Dual Enrollment Drives Student Success

According to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the six-year college completion rate for the Fall 2015 cohort was 62.2%, an increase of 1.4% over Fall 2014. And while six-year completion rates increased in two-thirds of the states during this time, the fact that we’re reporting six-year completion rates shows that many students are still struggling to complete their degree on time.

Not only do 88% of students who participate in dual enrollment programs go on to attend college, they are also more likely to complete their degree in less time than their non-participating peers. In fact, depending on how many dual enrollment credits they amass in high school, some students can eliminate one or two years from their time in college, enabling them to graduate in less time.

Dual enrollment is also a powerful lever for closing equity gaps, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Students from low-income backgrounds and/or school districts were 10% more likely to enter college after high school when they participated in dual enrollment programs. And students in majority/minority school districts who participated in dual enrollment were 32-56% more likely to go to college than their non-participating peers.

Dual Enrollment Boosts Community College Enrollment

Since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, postsecondary institutions have lost 1.3 million students. Community colleges are facing some of the steepest declines, with enrollment down 7.8% in spring 2022. But as dual enrollment continues to gain momentum, many are noticing that it can help combat these declining enrollments fueled by the pandemic.

Community colleges in particular can benefit from partnerships with local high schools. By opening their doors to high school students, they can fill empty seats and recoup some of the enrollment losses. In fact, for some community colleges, dual enrollment students can account for nearly half of their overall enrollment.

Dual Enrollment Improves Affordability

Affordability is a concern that is on the minds of many prospective college students and their families. And it’s no wonder. Over the past 10 years, tuition and fees increased by at least 20% – and those numbers are only going up.

Dual enrollment offers students a more affordable way to earn credits towards their 2-year or 4-year degree. Policies vary, but in some states, the state or school districts cover costs for dual enrollment courses. In others, the student or their family is responsible for the fees. And still others are a combination. Regardless of how your state handles the fees, the cost for students is still much less than what they would pay for a traditional college class.

Colorado: A Case Study in Dual Enrollment

Colorado has a lofty goal: to reach 66% postsecondary education attainment by 2025 for adults age 25-34, a goal that represents a 10% increase over five years. The state has identified dual, or concurrent enrollment, as a key strategy to help them attain this goal, and the initial data shows that this strategy is working.

Here’s a short summary of the program:

“Launched in the 2009-2010 school year after passage of Colorado HB09-1319 and SB09-285, the Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act created Colorado’s present program, defined as “the simultaneous enrollment of a qualified student in a local education provider and in one or more post secondary courses, including academic or career and technical education courses, which may include coursework related to apprenticeship programs or internship programs, at an institution of higher education.” High school students who participate in Concurrent Enrollment may enroll tuition-free in postsecondary courses and earn college credits that are transferable to any Colorado public university.”

Concurrent enrollment is proving to have a positive impact on student success across the state. Initial findings, shared during the Connect 2020: The NACEP Digital Forum, showed:

  • Students who participated in concurrent enrollment were 25% more likely to matriculate than those who did not participate
  • Of the concurrent enrollment students who matriculated:
    • 8% were more likely to earn a 2-year degree within two years
    • 10% were more likely to earn a 4-year degree within four years 
    • 1.1% more likely to earn a 4-year degree within three years

The study also found that concurrent enrollment students, regardless of income, minority status, gender, or academic achievement, demonstrated improved odds of college entrance, success, and earnings by similar amounts. 

It’s clear that the work in Colorado can serve as a model for other states when it comes to using dual enrollment as a way to boost postsecondary student outcomes. With the right policies – and the right technology – dual enrollment can become a key strategy to improve affordability, shorten time to completion, and improve student success.

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