The term “dual enrollment” can be defined differently in different situations, but generally refers to any option that allows a teenager to enroll in college classes before they have graduated from high school. Every state offers some type of dual enrollment option, although eligibility and the process for gaining access can vary significantly. In general, students need to be at least 16 years old or be classified as a junior to be eligible to enroll in college level courses.
Most frequently, instruction is delivered at the community college campus by the same college staff who teach college students. However, some colleges and universities will contract directly with high schools through a program that brings college into the high school. These courses follow the same syllabus, but are taught at the high school by high school teachers to better align with the high school’s calendar year.
Because the student is taking an actual college course, they demonstrate their ability to manage college level work up to two years earlier than they would otherwise have access. This is highly desirable for college admissions because the student offers concrete evidence of success within a college setting.
Many high achieving students struggle to find challenging courses when they exhaust the most rigorous offerings available within their own school, so the college opens up a much broader range of options. For example, instead of just offering a general biology class to be followed up by AP Biology, a college science curriculum may offer multiple specialized courses such as marine biology, molecular cell biology, genetics, and bioinformatics. Community colleges also offer many career-related courses that not only provide greater variety for the student, but also enable the student to earn an industry certificate making them employable immediately upon high school graduation.
In addition to a wider variety of offerings and courses that delve into greater depth, students may also find that the college grants them access to more sophisticated equipment. In fine arts classes like ceramics or audio engineering that are very dependent on specialized equipment, this can provide a much different experience compared to what is typically available at the high school level.
When states set up structures to permit high school students to enroll in community college courses, they often provide a funding mechanism that allows the money that would have been paid to a public high school to follow the student and fund his or her college tuition.
Even when there is no formal funding mechanism established to cover the high school student’s tuition, a parent who pays standard tuition costs out of pocket is still eligible for the tax benefits since they are paying tuition directly to the college. Parents may also be able to access 529 funds to pay college tuition for a younger student.
Factors to Consider
Although the student may be mature and well accomplished within a high school setting, dual enrollment often means that the student is attending class alongside adults who are paying full tuition for the same course. Students need to have the maturity, emotional strength, and communication skills to behave appropriately in class and on campus, and also to set boundaries when befriended by classmates who have more life experience than they do.
For many high school students, following a syllabus is a new experience. Some college professors don’t ask for homework at the due date or even take attendance daily so the student must be able to initiate tasks and work independently, as well as be assertive enough to ask for help when they need it. In addition to good study skills and well developed executive functioning, students must be comfortable with technology as many assignments need to be submitted online following specific formatting requirements.
While tuition may be publicly funded for high school students, the additional cost of books, fees, and other expenses associated with a college class typically are not.
In addition, students are usually responsible to arrange their own transportation to and from college courses. Even when waivers are available to students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, some students still experience financial barriers or attempt classes without all of the recommended materials, reducing their chance for an optimal experience and a successful outcome.
Impact on Transcript
Dual enrollment awards both college credit and high school credit for the same course. For a student who carefully times all courses and begins in the fall of their junior year, it is possible to earn an associate’s degree from the college at the same time the student earns a high school diploma.
The transfer rate for credit earned in a college is very favorable to the high school student, who receives a greater amount of credit at the high school level. For example, a student who takes a standard 5-credit college course over a quarter term will spend 11 weeks earning these 5 college credits. This same course transfers to the high school transcript as one full year of high school credit. For this reason, dual enrollment courses are an excellent option for students who want to show a high number of credits earned as well as those who have fallen behind and wish to accrue credits more quickly than they could in a traditional high school.
Dual enrollment can raise a student’s competitiveness on a college application, not only because the student can demonstrate concretely that they are capable of doing college level work but also because the student will show a greater total number of credits on their final high school transcript. The drawback, of course, is that the student must maintain high grades even in the more demanding college classes, so a student who isn’t adequately prepared suffers the consequence of an unfavorable grade impacting their grade point average more significantly than a regular high school course.
Impact on Career and Life After High School
Besides beginning college early, students who participate in dual enrollment options are also able to begin careers early. Community colleges offer many courses specifically designed to prepare students for a career, often issuing an industry certificate to confirm the student’s level of training. When high school students enroll in dual enrollment program allowing access to workforce education pathways, their career begins a full two years ahead of others who enter the workforce, giving them additional time to hone skills and earlier eligibility for union membership. These students are able to earn a sustaining wage immediately upon graduating from high school. For students who opt to continue their studies at a four year university, they possess the ability to work as a skilled laborer and earn a higher hourly rate during this critical period when time (and time management) is a premium.
By attending courses on a college campus, the student becomes familiar with many components of college life. Even if they don’t return to the same campus after graduation, the campus layout, which may result in classes spread apart in separate buildings, is more comfortable. The student has already developed strategies to follow a syllabus and to manage the accelerated pacing of curriculum while still living at home. All of these experiences can build a student’s confidence and smooth the transition into attending college full time.
Sometimes a student will discover that they don’t particularly like the field they are studying. This is a valuable lesson learned when it occurs early enough within the student’s studies that he can shift to another program that may more closely align with his interests and aspirations and the time lost has minimal impact on his career longevity. Too many students discover that they don’t enjoy the pursuit they have chosen near the end of their training and often feel compelled to complete the program if they have already accrued high levels of debt. People also stay employed in careers whether a fit or not in an effort to justify debt, and delay discovering their passion or even satisfactory work for decades. Exploring options early on can allow students the opportunity to understand the demands of their chosen field and determine whether or not they enjoy the direction they are headed.
For students who are prepared academically, socially, and emotionally, participating in dual enrollment classes can be a tremendous advantage. In addition to greater variety and rigor in college classes, the student often gains a significant financial benefit. Students are encouraged to talk with their school counselor to determine if dual enrollment is the right choice for them.