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A new study from the Community College Research Center finds that dual enrollment programs – which have rapidly proliferated in recent years in part because of state support – are associated with positive outcomes on such measures as high school graduation and college enrollment rates, college grade point averages and progress toward college completion.

Finding that students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds benefit from enrolling in college courses while still in high school, the authors of “The Postsecondary Achievement of Participants in Dual Enrollment: An Analysis of Student Outcomes in Two States” argue that the recent expansion of dual enrollment programs, heretofore not well studied, may well be "warranted."

Furthermore, they write that “states and programs should consider ways to encourage participation for a broad range of students.” Traditionally, the authors point out, dual enrollment programs focused on high-achieving students, but they're increasingly perceived as beneficial in promoting academic rigor and easing the high school to college transition for students with average grade point averages and an interest in technical careers.

The Community College Research Center study, conducted by Melinda Mechur Karp, Juan Carlos Calcagno, Katherine L. Hughes, Dong Wook Jeong and Thomas R. Bailey, tracks high school and college outcomes for dual enrollment participants in New York City and Florida, with a specific focus on students pursuing career and technical education (although, for Florida, the researchers also examine outcomes for all students enrolled). Controlling for a number of student characteristics, the researchers compare the outcomes for dual enrollment students to those of their respective peer groups, comparing dual enrollment students involved with technical education to their peers also in technical education but not involved in dual enrollment, for instance.

The researchers find in Florida that dual enrollment is positively associated with the likelihood that students – both the full sample of students and the subset involved in career and technical education -- will earn a high school diploma, initially enroll in a four-year institution, enroll full-time and persist in college to a second semester. Students who participated in dual enrollment in high school had significantly higher cumulative college GPAs three years after high school graduation than did their peers who did not participate in dual enrollment programs, and they had also earned more college credits (indicating progress toward a degree) than non-participating peers.

Also in Florida, researchers conclude that male and low-income students seem to glean a particularly strong benefit from the dual enrollment programs, while, on some measures, students with lower high school grades benefit more than students with higher grades.

As for New York City, the researchers track the outcomes of vocational high school graduates who participated in College Now, a partnership involving the City University of New York. Researchers find that the College Now participants are more likely than their peers to pursue a bachelor’s degree, earn higher first-semester GPAs and progress toward a degree.

The study finds conflicting evidence on the question of whether the intensity of dual enrollment participation has an effect on outcomes. In Florida, they find that the outcomes remain relatively constant whether high school students take one college course or more than five, while in New York City, the effect on GPA, for instance, seems to hinge on students taking two or more college courses.

Because they find that dual enrollment programs seem to benefit a wide range of students, the authors suggest that dual enrollment courses be offered tuition-free for low-income students, that offerings be expanded, including those involving career and technical fields, and that restrictive eligibility requirements should be loosened -- in Florida, for instance, a state law guarantees access to dual enrollment programs only for students with a GPA of 3.0 or above. Schools of course don't want to set students up for failure by sending them to college courses they're unprepared for, but Katherine L. Hughes, an author of the study and assistant director of the Community College Research Center, housed at Columbia University’s Teachers College, pointed out that programs like College Now offer participating students extensive support.

"The big conclusion is that we have some real evidence now that this is an effective strategy for helping students make a better transition to college and persist in college once they're there," said Hughes. "We see that as being particularly effective for lower-income students and for males and if you're looking at lower-income students, states and policymakers are weighing how to invest their money."

"If traditionally these programs have been for the high-achieving students, the ones who are already going to be successful in college, it seems pretty clear that we should invest in these programs for those who don't necessarily see themselves as college-bound."

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