Assessing Dual Enrollment

Introduction by Julia Brookins, Illustrations by Zoila Torres | Sep 1, 2015

In January 1990, I started taking a course called American History through the Novel and Film at Simmons College in Boston. I was in eighth grade. I left sixth period a little early two or three times a week and made my way across the frozen parking lots that separated my school from the college. Through a national program run by Johns Hopkins University, I had taken the PSAT or the SAT early and had done well enough to qualify for free enrollment in one college course. It was interesting stuff for a 13-year-old, and it made a strong impression on me. I can remember much of the syllabus, which is more than I can say for most of the courses I went on to take after high school.

The professor gave lively lectures; I listened gamely and took a lot of notes while trying to be inconspicuous. We watched movies that seemed to capture the spirit of exciting times I had not experienced, like Alice’s Restaurant, The Way We Were, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In addition to my school homework, I picked my way through some pretty heavy classics—Sister Carrie, A Farewell to Arms, and The Great Gatsby, among others. Our guiding secondary text was Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in American History. There was a midterm and a final exam. I have a transcript with a B+ on it.

For me, my professor, and my fellow middle-school students, the stakes of this adventure were low. Twenty-five years later, the stakes that early-college learning poses for higher education are too high to ignore. Dual-enrollment (DE) and dual-credit programs, in which high school students can simultaneously earn credit toward their high school graduation requirements and college degrees, are reshaping higher education, especially lower-division courses within core curricula.

Several constituencies have interests in this discussion. Many students and their families, priced out of the four-year, residential experience often equated with “college,” or facing 10 to 20 years of education loan repayments, are pursuing opportunities to earn college credits during their high school years for free or at low cost. High school students without college credits may be at a disadvantage relative to their peers in terms of both actual learning and the odds of admission to selective institutions. Faculty based at colleges and universities also face new risks and potential rewards. For history professors, the expansion of DE programs is both a chance to enlarge the community of instructors in the discipline and a threat to the common financial model for many history programs, in which tuition from high-enrollment introductory courses can offset the costs of a research-oriented faculty and small upper-level courses. Some see the savings to students and their parents as lost revenue, diverting resources from institutions of higher education.

Change is happening rapidly, without much attention from academics. College courses are being offered in a variety of settings to serve more students earlier. In Texas, for example, the state’s required introductory college history courses are offered in five instructional settings: at four-year universities; at two-year colleges; as AP courses in high schools with high school instructors; through regular high schools as DE courses (students travel to the local community college or stay in their school buildings, depending on the course section and the agreement with the sponsoring higher-education institution); and at special “early college” high schools, created by school districts partnering with the state. At the latter, students can follow one of several structured curricular pathways to graduate from high school with a diploma and an associate’s degree (often with an emphasis on science and technology).

The four essays that follow raise important issues about the kinds of instructional forms and administrative arrangements that enable students to learn at the college level. This forum builds on the work and methods of faculty participants in the AHA’s Tuning project to begin a conversation about what is fundamental to college history and what is incidental. What do students need from a DE course to effectively learn the core concepts and competencies of history? What is the purpose of college-level learning in our discipline, and is it different from the purposes of high school history education? If so, how? Any reconsideration of policies and programs needs to be guided by clear, local answers to these questions.

There is every reason to believe that DE is here to stay. As a community that values quality history education, we need to be mindful of the phenomenon, and we need to collaborate proactively across levels and institutions to determine the roles that our discipline can play in dual-credit programs. They are growing fast, and we have an opportunity to shape them.


“The Glossary of Education Reform,” Great Schools Partnership,

Keith Erekson, The History Survey Project: Improving Introductory History Courses,” OAH Magazine of History (July 2013): 41–43.

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