Russ Olwell’s book on dual enrollment, A Guide to Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs (Routledge, 2021), is frank enough to be useful. That’s uncommon in treatments of relatively new programs, and I mean it as a compliment.
Drawing heavily on his experience with dual-enrollment programs in Michigan and Massachusetts, as well as others around the country, Olwell offers a practical overview of the benefits and challenges of these programs and a working theory as to why they’re often as fragile as they are.
First, the benefits. Olwell draws a useful distinction between students who were likely to go to, and succeed in, college anyway, and students who were not. He locates the primary benefit with the latter group. That’s the group for whom, as he puts it, exposure to college can change eventual college attendance from a possibility to an expectation (p. 51). The former group already has IB and AP programs. He cites several studies showing massive economic benefits to both students and the broader society from getting low-income and first-generation high school students involved in college course work early.
He mentions in passing the “blue-haired kid” (p. 71). I would have spent more time on that. A colleague once referred to the popular kids in high school as the “shock troops of gender conformity.” She meant that for students who don’t fit into the very specific high school social scene, the real challenge of high school is more social than academic. I saw that at Holyoke, where the Gateway to College program worked with prospective or actual high school dropouts to get them back on track. Many were perfectly capable of doing the work, but they wilted in the coercive social atmosphere of high school; the greater diversity and tolerance they found on a community college campus allowed them to thrive.
The challenges of dual enrollment are many and varied. For example, some four-year schools condition the acceptance of transfer credits on the building in which the class was taught. Others will flatly deny credit if the student hadn’t graduated high school yet, regardless of performance. I laughed out loud at Olwell’s declaration that “Early College scheduling is simply a grinding nightmare” (p. 32). It is, but only a practitioner would know that. The college and high school years don’t align, the calendars don’t align, and even the time for sports and activities doesn’t align. Textbook replacement cycles are different. Faculty credentials are often different. Disability accommodation protocols are different. Parental expectations appropriate in one context may inappropriately carry over into the other. Transportation is a beast.
Olwell is clear throughout that student support is a key variable. If students are simply thrown into college classes without knowing what to expect, they’re likely to struggle. Policies on placement designed for students who have graduated high school sometimes don’t fit students who are still there; for example, we had to redefine multifactor placement to take account of students who hadn’t had certain courses yet. Wraparound support is expensive, but without it, students may flounder. And as affirming to an adolescent self-image as success can be, early failure can be devastating.
I was particularly taken with his discussion, drawing on Anthony Jack’s work, of the importance of helping students understand faculty office hours. High school faculty don’t follow that model, so it may be entirely new to many dual-enrollment students. Depending on how the DE program is structured, students may or may not learn how office hours are supposed to work. Those who learn it tend to be much more successful, both in the program at hand and upon subsequent transfer. It’s an easy piece to overlook when building a class schedule, but it’s worth remembering.
A more subtle, but more difficult, obstacle often comes from college faculty who perceive dual enrollment as watering down the college. That’s probably most pronounced in the community college sector, where the stigma attached to community colleges remains a sore point. Faculty who have lived with, and resented, the snide comments about 13th grade may perceive dual enrollment as a tacit admission that the critics were right. Here, Olwell notes that those objections typically fall away as professors teach the classes and are pleasantly surprised by the caliber of student work, but getting past the initial resistance can be a task.
Compared to many other interventions with less proof of benefit, dual-enrollment programs have proved difficult (in most states) to fund. In Olwell’s estimation, and I think he’s right, that’s at least partially because dual enrollment falls between institutions. It asks both high schools and colleges to act in ways that neither was designed to act. When the budgets for both are already strapped, it can be tempting for each to try to push costs onto the other. When both sectors are unionized, collective bargaining agreements may not have been written with dual enrollment in mind. In the short term, that can put sand in the gears. That’s why he notes that a key element of successful programs is “entrepreneurial leaders willing to take some risks and bend some rules” (p. 11). The rules weren’t written with this sort of thing in mind, but rules often take on a solemnity with age that really wasn’t warranted by their origins.
I’m acutely aware here that I’m only scratching the surface of an admirably useful book. It touches, too, on student mental health, the unique issues facing STEM classes, the unique issues facing social science classes (THANK YOU), and the outsize mind space taken up by the selective college admission process when drawing up policies. For such a brief book, it packs a punch. For anyone trying to get a DE program off the ground, or trying to improve one, or trying to get one funded, it’s well worth the time.