The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Dual Enrollment in Perspective
In 2013, President Obama outlined a series of proposals to increase higher education access, promote accountability, and expand reporting on student learning. One of the programs he highlighted was dual enrollment (DE), also known as concurrent enrollment or dual credit, in which high school students earn college credits while completing college-level classes either at local colleges or at their schools. Some high schools have had such programs for over 50 years, while others are seeking to establish them. Many colleges and universities have begun partnerships with schools, registering thousands of students each year. As it happens, many students enroll in history courses. When I became department chair, no orientation mentioned DE, much less presented it as an essential part of my position. Local teachers and university administrators knew more about it than I did. From conversations with my university colleagues and in the AHA, I have learned that many historians are completely unaware of DE, whether in the discipline or in their own institution. The consequences are significant.
The university-produced literature promoting DE claims benefits for multiple stakeholders. For students, the programs offer a challenging curriculum, more individualized instruction than in a college class, and experience with college-level instruction. Parents are attracted to the lower cost of DE classes—as low as $75 at public institutions to $500 at private ones—and the ability to transfer credits, shortening the years to completion of a college degree. DE program websites also assert that teachers can develop professional relationships with college faculty and gain access to university libraries. Many institutions offer college credit in local high schools, and some large state institutions have DE programs in surrounding states.
Nationally, the National Association of Concurrent Enrollments Partnerships (NACEP) offers accreditation to institutions with dual or concurrent enrollment, but many high schools offering DE are not accredited through the organization. In 2015, according to its website (nacep.org), it had accredited 97 concurrent enrollment programs. The classes must be as rigorous as those at sponsoring college campuses, and DE must offer a seamless transition from high school to college. The standards recommend that DE classes be of the same academic caliber as those offered on campus, and that all instructors meet the same academic requirements as those that apply to instructors at the partnering institution. Finally, NACEP requires that the high schools follow assessment and pedagogical approaches that are similar to those at their partner higher education institutions and offer ongoing professional development to DE teachers.
As chair, I discovered that there were as many if not more sections of introductory US history taught each semester through high school DE programs as at my institution.
DE programs do meet demands of parents and administrators, but serious issues remain. I began paying attention to DE policies, procedures, and programs only as chair of my department. Our program has existed since the mid-1970s. When I requested the enrollment data, I discovered that there were as many sections of introductory US history taught each semester through DE as at my institution—if not more. From fall 2008 to spring 2014, a total of 1,542 students enrolled in college-credit history courses at high schools partnering with my university. Many of them transfer these credits to other colleges and universities. Depending on the general education requirements they encounter there, these students may never take another history class.
But what of the quality of DE courses? Anecdotally, I have found that students taking classes for college credit frequently are assigned to a regular high school history class, alongside students who are not pursuing college credit. Unlike their counterparts, DE students must apply and meet certain minimum standards, such as a GPA threshold and certain SAT or ACT scores. To receive college credit, some students complete only one or a couple of additional assignments. Thus, college credit may be given for an additional assignment rather than an integrated college classroom experience, as recommended by NACEP.
Many teachers enjoy such programs because they, like their students’ parents, believe the promises of flashy brochures: relationships with university departments and ongoing professional development. A DE teacher must have experience teaching the subject area and an honors or AP-level class, and must demonstrate completion of undergraduate and graduate course work. I am very fortunate that the teachers I work with have excellent credentials, but that may not be the case in all institutions. At a university or college, frequently instructors must have a master’s degree in the field to teach introductory courses.
Recognizing that politicians, parents, university administrators, students, and teachers have an interest in these programs, I have spent the past two years immersing myself in improving the DE courses sponsored by my department. In October 2014, these efforts culminated in a meeting with the DE history teachers. All have impressive credentials. They are highly engaged with their students in the classroom, as well as with numerous clubs related to history, whether National History Day competitions, Model UN, debate societies, or history or social science clubs. Their energy and passion for history is contagious. I see a huge benefit to the profession that comes from working with DE teachers and sharing ideas. At one local DE partner school, for example, the Social Science Club has more than 500 members. With the AHA’s ongoing discussions about declining enrollments in undergraduate history programs, the club demonstrates a continued interest in history among high school students. We could learn something from teachers who inspire that type of passion.
The teachers positively responded to my department’s requests to alter their class requirements and assignments for students receiving college credit, to consider forming designated separate college sections, if possible, and to maintain stronger ties to the department. All of this, however, is difficult to sustain without institutional support. This could come in the form of additional funding to the department for a representative to visit the schools, not to mention an increase in the minimal funding given to the office that oversees these programs. But even with additional support, running multiple history introductory sections on two campuses (Queens and Staten Island) and reviewing the full-time and contingent faculty on campus complicates efforts to oversee additional sections spread across five boroughs, on Long Island, and in surrounding counties.
A final area of concern is that many commissions of higher education do not pay close attention to DE classes. Instead, commission representatives argue that the institutions are responsible for overseeing such programs, creating the assessment tools for programmatic review, and measuring and creating best practices. This approach is beneficial because it potentially gives faculty and departments more control, and organizations such as NACEP offer an excellent example of how this could be realized. Yet more and more universities and colleges are introducing DE classes that hundreds, if not thousands, of additional students are taking. Frequently, there is little contact between academic departments and high schools, little collection of assessment data, and no additional resources given to departments whose faculty created and developed the courses in the first place. Periodic visits at the discretion of a chairperson who decides to take on the challenge of DE do not constitute a best practice model for the teaching and learning of history.
Elaine Carey is professor and department chair of history at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She also serves as the AHA’s vice president, Teaching Division.
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