Expanding Dual Enrollment With Federal, State Support
By Christian Collins
Accessibility and affordability of postsecondary educational opportunities remain a persistent obstacle preventing millions of Americans and their families from acquiring high-quality employment. Though unlikely to pass through Congress, President Biden’s FY2024 budget strongly signals a priority on increasing accessibility of postsecondary education at community colleges through his administration’s proposed $90 billion over 10 years for universal tuition-free community college. The budget also includes $500 million to implement a new first-dollar grant program that would lay the foundation for free community colleges. Because state-level reforms have a substantially higher likelihood of success, state governments can play an even larger role in increasing both accessibility and affordability of postsecondary education. A highly effective tool available to states is the expansion of dual enrollment programs.
Dual enrollment is the practice of students enrolling in two separate academic institutions simultaneously, most commonly with high school students taking college courses while still in high school. This practice originated in 1955 when the University of Connecticut began offering collegiate courses at area high schools and has since expanded to 82 percent of public high schools offering some version of dual enrollment.
Underfunded, but not Underutilized
Community colleges are the backbone of dual enrollment programs, as roughly 70 percent of all dual enrollment high school students take their courses through community colleges. These programs aren’t just a resource for students seeking access to affordable postsecondary education, they’ve also served to protect the health of community colleges themselves. While community college enrollment rates have continued to drop throughout the last decade, dual enrollment rates have increased. Postsecondary students aged 17 or younger had the only enrollment increases between 2020 and 2022 of any age group in undergraduate education at 9.3 percent, driven by a 12.8 percent increase in enrollment at public 2-year colleges.
Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia offer state-level dual enrollment programs, but not every program is designed with equity in mind. Of the 88 state-level programs nationwide, 40 require students to contribute at least a portion of their tuition, creating a cost barrier for potential students. Twelve states don’t provide any public funds for dual enrollment programs, leaving students and their families to pay all costs by themselves.
This funding patchwork has led to inequitable access to dual enrollment opportunities based on race and family income. Nearly 13 percent of white high school students participated in dual enrollment, making them the only racial demographic with a double-digit percentage and more than doubling the rate of Black students. Schools serving higher percentages of students living in poverty offer significantly fewer dual enrollment options compared to schools with lower poverty levels, even when controlling for school size, school type, and school locale.
Program availability is also limited by cost for under-resourced schools and districts, given that common cost barriers include a lack of available equipment, fewer available staff to facilitate programs, and less physical space to provide courses. Transportation is another cost obstacle to students seeking to enroll in programs, since 24 percent of all dual enrollment students had to commute to college campuses or other high schools to take courses, with this figure rising to as high as 32 percent for students in densely populated areas. The balance of dual enrollment students took their courses either online or at their high school.
Cost barriers don’t affect just students seeking to dual enroll. The very colleges seeking to develop and implement these programs must grapple with financial issues. Tuition at community colleges for dual enrollment programs—no matter whether paid through public funds or by students themselves—is often offered at a discount compared to regular tuition rates due to state laws. Given that dual enrollment students represent nearly 20 percent of all community college students nationally, and with some states approaching 40 percent representation, that’s a significant revenue stream loss for community colleges. States must counter this shortfall through state-level funding to help ensure the financial sustainability of community colleges providing dual enrollment. Coupled with state governments chronically underfunding community colleges, some institutions don’t have the financial support needed to offer dual enrollment programs.
Dual Enrollment is Well Worth the Costs
Dual enrollment programs are arguably the largest available free college program in the country, and they represent a significant opportunity for the continued expansion of accessible and affordable postsecondary education. By contributing to increased income for graduates, helping lower unemployment rates, and generating significantly more tax revenue than they cost to run, community colleges are vital economic mobility lifelines.
Through its $200 million proposal to create a Career-Connected High Schools initiative that integrates dual enrollment into high schools across the country, the Biden Administration is prioritizing the importance of such opportunities for millions of students. States’ underfunding of community colleges has already led to significant revenue gaps compared to 4-year colleges, and allowing these gaps to persist threatens the sustainability of vital anti-poverty programs like dual enrollment. To truly improve outcomes for the next generation, states must not just match the Biden Administration’s efforts but exceed them.