What's High School For?
We all want more young people to attend college. Who would argue with that? Politicians and educators at all levels extol the obvious virtues, from enhanced earning potential to a greater satisfaction in life. One increasingly popular way to encourage college attendance is through dual enrollment, in which students take courses in high school for both high school and college credit.
In theory, dual enrollment enables high school students to accrue college credits for very little cost and imbues them with a sense of confidence that they can complete college work. If students can succeed in college classes while still in high school, conventional wisdom holds, they will be more likely to matriculate at the postsecondary level.
In Indiana, dual enrollment is encouraged at the highest levels, with state Education Secretary Tony Bennett maintaining that at least 25 percent of high school graduates should pass at least one Advanced Placement exam or International Baccalaureate exam, or earn at least three semester hours of college credit during high school.
In reality, though, dual enrollment may do more harm than good.
Increasingly, students are turning up at college campuses with an impressive number of college credits, thereby bypassing introductory college courses. The problem is that high school is not college and completion of a dual enrollment high school class is not always a guarantee that students have learned the material. For instance, students earning a “C” in a dual enrollment English class in high school with a high school teacher are exempt from a basic writing course in college. They would immediately be placed into upper-level college classes where faculty members assume a basic skill level the students might or might not possess.
As a result, classes that used to be termed “college-prep” are now seen as college proper. The rationale is that if high schools offer the same psychology class, for example, as colleges and cover similar material, these students should be earning college credit. Dual enrollment proponents argue that high school teachers are trained by a university and follow the same syllabus. In practice, however, courses covered in a high school setting on a high school calendar are often vastly different in practice.
This is not a criticism of high school teachers. Many are excellent educators and care deeply about students. But they often teach more classes than college faculty do, have myriad extracurricular responsibilities, and lack the requisite training that enables college faculty to introduce best practices in the field. In contrast, college faculty members expect a higher level of work from students, including having them study independently, write in the discipline and be exposed to the latest research. They are less likely to offer extra credit, or evaluate students based on an inflated high school norm.
High school teachers and college faculty have different roles, equally important. The line between the two shouldn’t blur.
Even the classroom dynamic is different. High school students, especially sophomores and juniors, are not like college students. A collection of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds are normally at a different stage of intellectual and moral development than are college students. Treating a high school student like a college student does not always do them a favor.
It is too soon to know how this phenomenon of early college will play out, but my fear is that students will be hurt. In a rush to adhere to federal and state initiatives, high schools have opened dual enrollment classes to as many students as are willing. What student would not be interested in taking college classes for little cost with their own high school teachers in a familiar setting?
We have a concrete example at Manchester College that shows how this new program may impair students. Manchester admitted a student from a celebrated articulation program between an Indiana two-year college and a high school with a strong academic reputation. This student, as a sophomore in high school, earned a “C” in a “college” English course, which exempts her from our basic English 111 College Writing class. Even though her ACT score indicates her writing skills are deficient, we are limited in what we can do.
Like many students who have already passed a “college” class, she thinks she already has the necessary writing skills to be successful in college. We know she very likely does not. Our willingness to increase student access by accepting transfer credit means that, without taking this student’s credits away, we cannot help her with her writing. Instead, by virtue of an average performance as a high school sophomore, this student will be placed into college classes for which she is unprepared.
Many students who presumably have taken more-rigorous writing classes in high school receive no college credit. They are, however, better prepared to succeed at college.
High schools are looking for willing university partners to sanction classes they are already teaching. Colleges are looking to facilitate transfer students; are no longer differentiating between courses taught at accredited colleges and those in a high school.
Other programs like AP (Advanced Placement) make an attempt, however imperfect, to assess student learning using a standard national examination. Colleges feel better about accepting credits when students demonstrate mastery of material on a recognized exam. However, the percentage of high school students able to do well enough on the AP exam to earn college credit is very small.
Most colleges willingly accept credits from like institutions because we trust that our courses are equivalent and that our faculty are credentialed. I doubt that same trust applies to high schools. The best service a high school can provide is to prepare students for college, not substitute for it.
The more we try to expedite learning, the more we send students mixed messages about the distinction between a high school and college education. And we cheapen a college education by making it seem accessible to nearly everyone despite the age and ability of the student or the qualifications of the teacher.
Glenn Sharfman is vice president and dean for academic affairs for Manchester College, in Indiana.