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The previous post was an objection to researchers extrapolating from K-12 to community colleges. This week I was reminded why.

We have dual enrollment programs with most of the high schools in our county.  The way the term is used here, that refers to college classes taken by high school students, whether taught in the high school or at the college.  Recently we’ve gained traction with Early College High School programs, in which high school students take so much dual enrollment that they wind up graduating with an associate’s degree at the same time that they graduate high school. (Given differing lengths of semesters, sometimes they finish college a few weeks before they finish high school.) ECHS programs are great ways for students and parents to reduce the cost of transfer, and to either improve access to college for students whose families otherwise wouldn’t be able to send them, or to offer more rigorous academic challenges to students who aren’t challenged enough by high school.

ECHS programs make nice alternatives to AP or IB programs to the extent that they offer actual transcripted college credits. They also offer the potential of more variety. Now that some selective colleges are getting pickier about actually giving credit for AP or IB, the economic appeal of ECHS programs is growing.  

But in conversation with a local superintendent, I saw a complication.

She explained that her high school, like every public high school in the state, is “graded” by the state, and the “grades” or rankings are released to the public every year. Her board judges her, in part, by how well the school does in the rankings.  

AP, IB, and even high SAT scores count for the rankings. Dual enrollment and ECHS don’t. She was concerned about the possible loss of some high AP testers to the ECHS program; as she put it, “I don’t want to lose the scores.”  

To her credit, she seemed determined not to let that stop her.  She wants to do right by her students, and providing them the opportunity to take college courses is a way to do that.  But the statement still gave me pause.

Structurally, her incentives skew towards AP, even as colleges are starting to move away from it.  She’s willing to take the high road and do the right thing for her students, and that’s great, but over time, it would be more sustainable if the incentives aligned.

In most states, K-12 and higher ed are governed separately. Each has its own incentives and imperatives. Sometimes they align, but frequently they don’t.  Part of the whole “common core” movement, whatever you think of it, was based on the goal of aligning the two sectors at the level of curriculum.  The jury is still out on the degree to which that worked, but the goal itself makes a lot of sense.  

At the federal level, financial aid doesn’t cover dual enrollment or ECHS classes.  So a student who’s hitting the ceiling of a poorly-funded high school can’t have access to Pell money to take classes instead at the local community college.  Instead, she has to slog through whatever the local school can offer.  If its AP or IB offerings are slim to none, well, too bad.  

Socially, that doesn’t make much sense, unless the goal is to keep some people down.  If the goal is an educated citizenry, we need to stop putting up artificial barriers.

I say, let the high school get some credit for its dual enrollment and ECHS students who succeed. And while we’re at it, let’s have a real conversation about financial aid for these programs.  Better to give students access to challenging coursework while they’re in a position to take it.  And let’s not punish high schools for stepping up. That’s exactly what they should be doing.

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