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A classroom full of students sit in rows. One student shows a paper to a professor.

Dual-enrollment courses can be costly for colleges to offer, according to a new Ohio state auditor’s report.

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About half of Ohio colleges and universities that offered dual enrollment lost money on the courses once student support costs were taken into account, a survey by the state’s auditor found. The survey of the state’s College Credit Plus program also revealed that the costs of the programs depended on the mode of instruction, which can vary widely for these courses.

The report, published in December and based on an analysis of 2022 data, comes at a time when high school students are increasingly enrolling in community college courses. The trend has been a relief for the institutions after staggering pandemic enrollment declines and an anticipated impending drop in the number of traditional-age students.

Community college enrollment rose 4.4 percent in fall 2023 compared to the prior year, and dual-enrollment students accounted for 40 percent of that growth, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The number of students age 17 or younger enrolled at two-year colleges increased 20.1 percent between fall 2021 and fall 2023.

But while dual enrollment might shore up the rolls at community colleges, studies like the one in Ohio suggest these programs can be hard on their budgets.

“[College Credit Plus] students comprise a significant percentage of higher educational enrollment, especially in Ohio’s community colleges,” the report said. “It is therefore important, especially in light of declining traditional student enrollment, for the long term fiscal health of Ohio higher education for institutions and policy makers to understand the net cost of this unique student segment and to incorporate CCP into recruiting plans.”

“We have spent a lot of time in the state, trying to make sure that we do not promote random acts of dual enrollment.”

—Jack Hershey, president and CEO of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges

John Fink, senior research associate and program lead at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said dual enrollment has doubled in the last 10 years, in part because these programs are popular among state lawmakers and tend to draw bipartisan support. A 2020 brief by the Education Commission of the States found that 23 state legislatures passed 36 bills related to expanding access to dual-enrollment offerings in 2019.

“There’s been decades of research evidence showing that students who participate do very well in college—they go on to college and complete college degrees at higher rates,” Fink said.

Jack Hershey, president and CEO of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, said, especially for first-generation students, “they might have been told over and over again that they’re not college material.

“If you can prove to them while they’re still in high school and show them that actually this is what a college course looks like, you can take it, you can succeed, the hope is that a light bulb goes off,” he said.

But the Ohio state auditor’s report and other research show that dual-enrollment courses can be costly for the institutions that offer them.

The report found that, at 25 of the 31 public higher ed institutions surveyed, tuition revenue from these courses exceeded direct instructional expenses. So, the majority appeared to make financial gains on dual enrollment. But even though instructional costs were the largest expense associated with these courses, student support costs shifted the picture. The number of institutions profiting from these courses was only 16 out of 31 when indirect and support costs were factored in, such as academic advising, tutoring, admissions support, library services and marketing costs.

For example, Sinclair Community College, one of the institutions providing the highest number of dual-enrollment credit hours in the state, gained $1,731,788 when just accounting for direct instructional costs and lost $38,740 when accounting for indirect costs. Similarly, Cuyahoga Community College, also a major provider, appeared to have a surplus of $274,741 but actually had a deficit of $1,932,133 when factoring in indirect costs, according to the report.

Eric Gordon, senior vice president of student development and education pipeline at Cuyahoga, said in an email that indirect costs add up, including onboarding and course evaluation expenses. CCP students have access to libraries and recreation facilities, counseling and advising from faculty members, and staff dedicated to the program. CCP student enrollment increased 16 percent at the college from fall 2021 to fall 2023.

“These indirect costs are vital for a successful student experience but are not calculated in the direct costs associated with tuition,” he said. State policymakers need to be cognizant, “like for any other college student,” of the total cost of attendance for CCP students.

Hershey said that advising costs in particular are worth it to college leaders because they’re crucial to ensuring these programs lead to a college education.

“We have spent a lot of time in the state, trying to make sure that we do not promote random acts of dual enrollment,” he said. The goal is for students to take classes that will advance them in a desired college program and career: “We’d like to put you on a path.”

He also emphasized that an important caveat to the report’s findings is that different colleges report indirect expenses differently.

“Not every college counts cost the same way; not every college staffs the College Credit Plus program the same way,” Hershey said, noting that small colleges don’t necessarily have staff members dedicated to their CCP programs, while large colleges or colleges working with multiple school districts are more likely to have those costs. “It’s not as apples to apples as I think a lot of people would have hoped it would be.”

These courses did come with some funding boosts, according to the report.

It showed that Ohio higher ed institutions with higher percentages of CCP students received higher portions of the State Share of Instruction, a component of the state’s performance-based funding formula for higher ed that’s based on enrollment. (In Ohio, tuition for these courses, which is free for public school students, is covered by these state funds and deductions from the state funding of K-12 school districts when their students enroll.)

The report also pointed out that tuition rate caps for CCP courses vary based on the mode of instruction to account for differences in costs for the college. CCP courses taught by K-12 instructors in high schools are presumed to be less expensive to colleges than courses taught by a college instructor in high schools or on campus. Online CCP courses also had a higher tuition-rate cap.

The report speculated that the most common modalities in Ohio—K-12 instructors teaching college curricula in high schools, and online dual-enrollment courses—could be a “high-margin revenue source for colleges” because they’re not responsible for K-12 teacher salaries, and online courses potentially don’t require instituting enrollment caps or booking campus classroom space.

The Bigger Picture

Ohio isn’t alone in finding dual enrollment to be a mixed bag financially. Nationally, offering dual-enrollment courses comes at a cost for many community colleges, according to a 2023 working paper by the Community College Research Center.

The working paper estimated that revenues cover only 72 percent to 85 percent of dual-enrollment costs for the typical community college. The net loss for the average community college was estimated to be about 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent of its total budget if dually enrolled high school students made up 10 percent of its student body.

Fink, one of the authors of the report, said he’s heard from some community college leaders that they’re willing to take the loss because these programs are so beneficial to their surrounding communities.

“Community colleges are … of the community. Their goal and mission is to serve the community. And that’s really what they’re focused on,” Fink said. “Of course, they need to be financially solvent to do that.”

There are a few ways dual enrollment can pay off for community colleges in the long run, even if they’re offering these courses at a loss, according to the working paper. If overall enrollment is down at a college, enrolling high school students is more cost-effective than leaving those seats empty, Fink noted. Dual-enrollment students may also increase funding in states with funding formulas that take into account student success metrics because of their high academic outcomes. Lastly, these programs can increase overall enrollments down the line if they serve high school students who otherwise might not have considered college and pique their interest in further education.

To attract that student, colleges need to make sure they’re providing robust dual-enrollment offerings in low-income high schools and at high schools with low college-going rates after graduation, Fink said. If they do, “high-quality dual enrollment can grow the pool of talented and successful college students coming into their doors from high school,” fulfilling “mission goals” and “recouping the cost.”

Gordon, of Cuyahoga Community College, said colleges in Ohio should “consider the expenses associated with the total cost of attendance for CCP students as an investment in future enrollment with an eye toward both access while in high school and retention and completion from our institutions. The revenue generated by effective retention and success would more than make up for the up-front investment of the college during the student’s participation in CCP.”

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