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File this one under “how to” for my counterparts out there...

Jennifer Zinth and Elisabeth Barnett have a good piece at the League for Innovation website on expanding dual enrollment programs beyond the highest achieving students. It’s worth a look. We’ve been doing that here for a few years now, so I’ll share a few lessons from the trenches.

First, and most basically, it’s true that students who might not be on the Honors track can succeed in college-level courses. We just had our first cohort of “Poseidon” students graduate, for instance. They were donor-supported first-generation students at Neptune High School, mostly with average grades in junior high, who completed an Associate’s degree while in high school.  The challenges were real, and a few students had to peel away from the cohort, but about ⅔ of those who started, graduated with college degrees. For a low-income group of first-generation students, that’s excellent. Even better, they came to think of themselves -- accurately -- as college students.  At the graduation ceremony, they told us where they were transferring, and it was a pretty impressive group of schools. Over time and with support, many students will rise to challenges. You’d be surprised.

Now for the detail-y part.  

High school schedules and college schedules don’t always match. They have different lengths of classes, lengths of days, and lengths of semesters.  When students are mixing and matching, as they do in dual enrollment, that leads to some challenges.  For instance, there’s nothing weird about college students having gaps in time between classes, but in a high school, you don’t want to leave students unsupervised.  We tend to default to the assumption that students are adults, and our policies and practices reflect that; high schools default to “in loco parentis.” Each is appropriate in its own setting, but when the settings mix, finding the right compromise takes some trial and error.

Transportation and lunch can be issues. Depending on the state, and the grade, many dual enrollment students may not be able to drive.  And the allowances for “free lunch” at a high school don’t come close to covering the cost of lunches in the for-profit cafeteria at the college.  Sara Goldrick-Rab has argued for years that the federal school lunch program should be extended to community colleges, and I couldn’t agree more.

Textbook renewal cycles are different. Some of our high school partners pay for the books for their students, just as they do with high school books.  One of our partners recently complained that the department changed books “ahead of schedule.” Apparently, the high school replaces books every seven years, and budgets accordingly, but our department changed books after three.  It’s one of those issues that seems trivial until it suddenly doesn’t. I’m advocating that we migrate to OER for many of those classes, thereby rendering textbook purchasing cycles moot, but I have to admit that this one blindsided us.

Sometimes, students fail. That’s a fact of life in college; even with the focus on student success and all of the support services we offer, sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. In a dual enrollment or early college setting, though, that can present a double danger. If the course counts for both high school and college requirements, and the student fails it, then the student has imperiled completion of both the diploma and the degree.  

A couple of students failing a class creates a real cohort-progression issue. How do you get students back on track? We learned early on that on-site tutoring matters, and needs to be included in the budget.  (Anecdotally, online tutoring is also a good option, because some students don’t want to lose face with their peers by being seen going for help, but they might get help if they can be sure that nobody will see them.)  Intersession and summer terms can be lifesavers here.

Faculty selection matters even more than it usually does, and that’s saying something. Some professors believe, at least at first, that dual enrollment cheapens the standing of a college, and they refuse to participate.(“If I wanted to teach high school, I would have taught high school.”)   Others see dual enrollment as an exciting adventure, or as a foray into social justice work. The difference matters because students can smell a bad attitude a mile away. Start with a coalition of the willing.  The good news is that success breeds success; as word spreads that this isn’t actually a fool’s errand, some early skeptics can be won over.

For courses taught in high schools, get language in the agreements allowing college faculty to do class observations, and include the deputized high school teachers in campus-based departmental discussions. Admittedly, this can create some tricky union issues, but it’s necessary. Quality control matters. In our own agreements, we always have a majority of the courses taught at one of our sites or campuses, usually integrated with traditional college students.  It helps the students feel more legitimate, and it ensures consistency of standards. It also exposes the high school students to adult students who have no tolerance for drama or silliness, which is a learning experience in itself.

Finally, and I’ll admit that this is partly speculative on my part, I’m starting to understand why dual enrollment and early college high school programs have been slower to catch on in states with robust home rule.  Dade County, Florida, has about 2.7 million people and one school district. Monmouth County, New Jersey has about 630,000 people and over 60 school districts. Each district requires its own agreement. I’m happy to do those agreements, but it’s objectively harder to do (and track) 60-plus than to do one.  That’s nobody’s fault, but at scale, it’s a challenge.

WIse and worldly readers, what hard-won lessons about dual enrollment would you impart?

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