College while in high school: How dual credit is aiming for equity


Once seen as a way to stave off “senioritis” among top students, the “dual credit” option – which allows high schoolers to take college courses – is booming in the United States, driven by a quest to lower the time and cost of a college degree. 

The opportunity is now widely viewed as a tool to advance equity, with the potential to close long-standing racial and socioeconomic gaps in college completion. 

Why We Wrote This

The option of taking college courses while in high school is booming in the U.S. What will it take to transform dual credit learning into a true tool to advance equity?

Yet in much of the country, the courses still aren’t reaching many of the low-income, rural, and minority students who might benefit from them the most. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is causing disproportionate numbers of low-income students to put off college, some states, colleges, and school districts are tackling those barriers head-on, lowering costs, relaxing strict entrance requirements, and aggressively recruiting underrepresented students into the programs. 

Community colleges in particular have seen a rise in dually enrolled students, whose ranks grew by 11.5% this past fall, data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows. Some of those schools are now experimenting with offering young people a path to a credential.

“When students have a sense of purpose,” says the Aspen Institute’s Josh Wyner, “they’re more likely to finish their degrees.” 

Rafael Sierra, a high schooler in Baytown, Texas, has never been one to skate through life – or school. When things get tough, he’ll hear his father saying “ponte las pilas” – “put the batteries in” – and knuckle down.

So when he was told by a middle school teacher that he could take college courses in high school, for free, he jumped at the chance. He saw it as a way to be challenged, to save money on college tuition, and, above all, to make his Mexican immigrant parents and three older siblings, who paved his path to college, proud.

Five years – and nearly 50 credits – later, Rafael is part of a nationwide boom in “dual credit” learning being driven by a quest to lower the time and cost of a college degree. Almost four decades after Minnesota launched the first statewide program, a majority of high schools offer dual credit, and roughly 10% of their students take them, federal data shows.

Why We Wrote This

The option of taking college courses while in high school is booming in the U.S. What will it take to transform dual credit learning into a true tool to advance equity?

Once seen as a way to stave off “senioritis” among top students, the dual credit option is now widely viewed as a tool to advance equity, with the potential to close long-standing racial and socioeconomic gaps in college completion. Studies show that students who take the courses are more likely to enroll in and finish college than those who don’t.

Yet in much of the country, the courses still aren’t reaching many of the low-income, rural, and minority students who might benefit from them the most. Though about one-third of white students took at least one dual credit class in 2019, only about a quarter of Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students, and almost a fifth of Black students, did.



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