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Noble Intentions: Can Dual Enrollment Be Reformed?

Alex Lichtenstein, September 2015

In many ways the state of Indiana and Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) have a model dual enrollment (DE) program, known at my institution as the Advance College Project (ACP). Unlike many DE programs, IU Bloomington’s is accredited by the National Association of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP); in fact, of the state’s 12 NACEP member institutions, only half are accredited. The organization mandates standards of faculty oversight, credentialing, and professional development for high school teachers. A well-run ACP office on campus oversees course offerings in 14 subjects, from biology to French to psychology—and, of course, US history. Each subject has a dedicated faculty member drawn from the appropriate department to vet teachers’ applications, conduct training and review sessions, and coordinate site visits.

Nevertheless, in the two years I have spent overseeing ACP offerings for the history department at IUB, I have come to have grave doubts about the utility of the program, despite its noble intentions, the dedication of the program’s teachers, and, in our university’s case, rigorous standards and oversight. DE has a long history in the state, dating back to the 1970s, although it was not enabled by legislation until 1987. Its initial purpose appears to have been to make college courses available to the select group of high school students really ready for college work. Just 10 years ago, only 132 students in the entire state took US history in high school for college credit. In 2005, however, the state revised the system “to encourage more students to enroll in dual credit by eliminating barriers to enrollment.” In the past decade, the push for DE in Indiana has expanded considerably, driven by the perceived necessity to encourage college attendance and to speed up college completion rates by providing college-aspirant (rather than college-ready) students a “leg up” at a low cost.

Today, nearly 3,800 Indiana high school juniors take IU’s ACP US history for college credit. (Even more enroll in DE programs overseen by community colleges, Indiana State University, and the state’s private universities.) The real leap in numbers came after the state mandated that beginning in 2009–10 every high school would offer at least two ACP courses, with US history as one of 10 “core subject areas.” Since then, annual enrollments in both halves of IUB’s US history survey on campus have declined, from over 1,700 to barely 500 today (see figure 1). Moreover, the number of DE credit hours offered now impacts a high school’s College and Career Readiness rating, which in turn contributes to the A–F “accountability” grade received by all schools in the state. Consequently, there is a great deal at stake at the local level when it comes to increasing the numbers of dual-enrolled students. Meanwhile, at $150 for two three-credit courses, ACP offers students and their parents a hard-to-refuse savings over the $1,700 cost of the same courses at the university itself.

Faced with pressure from legislators, school administrators, parents, and students to expand DE offerings, good-faith efforts to maintain rigor in these classes may prove inadequate. The Indiana Commission on Higher Education (ICHE) February 2010 statement of “Policies on Dual Credit Opportunities” appears unequivocal: “dual credit courses are of identical quality and rigor to qualify for college credit,” and “course syllabi . . . shall be identical to course syllabi used in the same courses taught on the postsecondary campus” (emphasis added). The 2009 Indiana Concurrent Enrollment Partnership (CEP) Report of the Subcommittee on Standards, Assessment, and Best Practices goes even further, recommending that “Concurrent enrollment students are held to the same standards of achievement as students in on-campus sections” and that they “are assessed using the same methods (e.g., papers, portfolios, quizzes, labs, etc.) as their on-campus counterparts.”2 But, realistically, are such exacting standards enforceable in programs scattered across hundreds of high schools around the state? Are such a large number of high school students really prepared for college-level work in US history?

Figure 1

From what I have observed on my site visits to the schools, only a small percentage of high school students can—or should be expected to—achieve the demands of a college-level course. Indiana’s CEP itself acknowledges that the legislative mandate “raises important concerns about quality, funding, and unintended consequences related to rapid program growth.”3 Moreover, of particular concern is the lack of qualified teachers for the program; school superintendents most often pointed to this bottleneck when they were surveyed. Although both NACEP and institutional accreditors expect universities to “apply the same credentialing criteria to concurrent enrollment instructors as adjuncts are held to on campus,” in practice, with the rapid expansion of the program and pressure from parents, teachers, and school districts to implement this program, this proves an impossible standard to meet. Very few high school history teachers in Indiana have even taken a graduate-level course in the field, let alone have an MA in US history. To apply this criterion would, essentially, end the ACP program, which is not politically feasible.

While the ideal of replicating college syllabi, assignments, and standards remains a fine aspiration, in practice the increased number of ACP students encourages teachers to reduce the rigor of their courses. In my observation, this problem is sometimes compounded by the very bad habit of mixing regular students and ACP students in the same classroom. Driven by school administrators’ unwillingness or inability to devote dedicated teacher time and/or classroom space to an ACP class, this practice presents teachers with the choice of flunking the non-college-ready students or making the class more accessible to them. These “mixed” classes were certainly not envisioned by the legislature, the ICHE, or any of the state’s DE task forces, which always refer to ACP courses, not ACP students. (Unlike Elaine Carey, I have not yet come across the solution by which “college credit is given for an additional assignment rather than an integrated college classroom experience as recommended by the NACEP.”)

Focusing on the disconnect between the growing number of Indiana students taking ACP US history courses and the dearth of teachers qualified to teach them, what are the potential reforms that might close this gap? ICHE’s preferred solution appears to be development of a nine-credit online Concurrent Enrollment Teacher Academy, in partnership with Purdue University North Central.4 But three online graduate courses in history, while certainly helpful, will not necessarily qualify teachers to lead university-level classes. By creating a system intended to mimic college instruction, dual enrollment in Indiana has set itself an unachievable standard. Perhaps instead universities in the state could offer intensive summer graduate courses for prospective ACP teachers that go beyond the one-week training we offer now and/or offer MA degrees to high school teachers. This would be an expensive and time-consuming proposition, but the CEP report does suggest “the state should provide financial and licensure incentives” for ACP teachers.

A major obstacle to this kind of enhanced training for ACP teachers remains, however; the main purpose of DE is to make a university education less expensive, not more rigorous. In its 2008 “Fiscal Report,” the CEP boasted that the ACP program “bears no incremental cost for the State,” since the university supposedly receives compensation for the student credit hours taught in high school.5 Well, perhaps—but this fails to count the cost of what one might call “underutilized capacity.” To draw on a model of higher education much in vogue these days, the state maintains an enormous investment in human capital—its full-time faculty—which once served to “produce” lower-division student enrollments, for example in the US survey. As the rapid increase in DE erodes the number of lower-division students in the universities, this capacity to teach a large number of college freshmen and sophomores at the state’s flagship university comes to resemble a highly capitalized giant steel mill reduced to producing bathtub plugs. If the trend continues, eventually universities will need to shed this excess capacity, thus ripping a hole in their research missions. Ironically, this follows on decades of complaints by students, parents, and legislators that highly trained research scholars rarely teach large introductory classes (a myth at every place I know of). We need enhanced training for ACP teachers if high school DE instruction is to begin to approach the level of course work expected in college. At the same time, however, perhaps we should admit that the number of “college ready” high school juniors able to take DE enrollment classes in US history is far fewer than the current policy imagines.

Alex Lichtenstein is associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington and interim editor of the American Historical Review.

Notes

1 The history of Indiana’s DE program is best described in Indiana Concurrent Enrollment Partnership, “Fiscal Analysis Report,” December 17, 2008, http://www.in.gov/legislative/igareports/agencyarchive/reports/CEP01.pdf.

2 Indiana Concurrent Enrollment Partnership, “Final Report, September 2009,” Appendix C.

3 In Indiana Concurrent Enrollment Partnership, “Fiscal Analysis Report,” 3.

4 Kimberly Mobley, “Overcoming the Shortage of Qualified Instructors to Teach Concurrent Enrollment Classes,” December 17, 2014, http://www.nacep.org/overcoming-instructor-shortage/.

5 Indiana Concurrent Enrollment Partnership, “Fiscal Analysis Report,” 16.


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