The term dual enrollment refers to students being enrolled—concurrently—in two distinct academic programs or educational institutions. The term is most prevalently used in reference to high school students taking college courses while they are still enrolled in a secondary school (i.e., a dual-enrollment student), or to the programs that allow high school students to take college-level courses (i.e., a dual-enrollment program). For this reason, the term early college is a common synonym for dual enrollment.
When students are dually enrolled in courses at two separate educational intuitions, they may or may not receive academic credit at one or both of the schools. If students do have the opportunity to earn academic credit at both institutions, the term dual credit may also be used (see discussion below). In some cases, the college credits students earn through a dual-enrollment experience can be used to satisfy high school graduation requirements, and in other cases the high school will not allow the course, for a variety of possible reasons, to satisfy credit requirements for graduation. High school students may also elect to take a college course independently, and they will therefore be “dually enrolled,” but the high school may not have facilitated or been involved in the decision. In most cases, the college credits earned by dual-enrollment students are recognized at the collegiate level and can qualify as completed course credits after a high school student is accepted into a postsecondary degree program (the acceptance of credit, however, is always an individual institutional decision).
In some cases, high school students take dual-enrollment courses on a college campus, alongside regular college students, while in other cases students take the courses online or from instructors who offer college-level courses at a high school or community center. Some colleges and universities allow high school students to take the courses for free, or they may offer reduced-priced tuition or fees, while in other cases students pay the full cost of a course. If the cost of a dual-enrollment course is fully or partially subsidized, the participating college, the high school, or a state or private program may cover or share the costs. In a word, dual-enrollment courses, programs, and experiences come in a wide variety of possible configurations—far too many to exhaustively catalog here.
Dual Enrollment vs. Dual Credit
Simply put, dual enrollment refers to students taking courses concurrently at two separate institutions, while dual credit refers to students completing a single course to earn academic credits that are recognized by two or more institutions. Yet a dual-enrollment experience may or may not allow students to earn dual credit, and a dual-credit experience may not entail concurrent enrollments in two separate institutions—it all depends on how a specific course-taking situation is structured.
To give one illustrative example, high school programs such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate allow some students to earn academic credit that is accepted by some colleges and universities. In the view of some educators, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses may be considered “dual credit” experiences because students can potentially earn both high school and college credit. Yet these programs are always offered by the high school a student attends, so they are not in any way dual-enrollment experiences. Given that the distinction between dual enrollment and dual credit can overlap, and the definitions are often conflated or confused, it’s important to investigate the specific configuration of a particular program or course-taking situation.
In recent years, dual-enrollment programs, courses, and experiences have grown in popularity in the United States, and they are generally viewed as a way to expose students to collegiate learning, demystify the collegiate experience, provide more challenging learning opportunities, increase postsecondary aspirations, or accelerate the attainment of a college degree—all of which can contribute to higher enrollment, success, and degree-attainment rates in postsecondary education programs.
In addition, since dual-enrollment programs may allow students to earn both high school and college credit simultaneously, they can decrease the amount of time—by a semester, year, or even more—commonly required to earn a two- or four-year postsecondary degree. And because the cost of dual-enrollment courses may be fully or partially subsidized, the expenses and loan debt averted by students and families can also improve the chances that a student will choose to enroll in and complete a postsecondary program. (The growing costs associated with earning a college degree, and concerns about taking on loan debt, are among the most frequently cited reasons why students decide not to pursue postsecondary education.)
Dual-enrollment programs are also a way for high schools to increase the learning opportunities available to students. For example, local colleges may offer specialized courses that are not available in the high school, such as Chinese language, engineering, nursing, or advanced mathematics (among many other potential courses not commonly offered in high schools). Some dual-enrollment students may simply want to challenge themselves intellectually and academically, while others may want to “try” a dual-enrollment course to see if college is a good fit for them.
Advocates of dual-enrollment programs and experiences tend to point out the potential benefits described above—that exposing students to collegiate learning, demystifying the college experience, providing academic and intellectual challenges, and making college more affordable can increase postsecondary aspirations, improve a student’s chance of success college, and accelerate the attainment of a postsecondary degree.
Skeptics of dual-enrollment may question whether some high school students are emotionally and socially ready for college, whether some will fail and become discouraged, or whether there is adequate oversight and guidance for secondary students on college campuses. Others may question whether the college courses address state learning standards, whether the courses are equivalent to or appropriate for the high school academic program, whether high schools should allow college courses to satisfy graduation requirements, and whether the proper procedures are in place to ensure that the college courses are sufficiently challenging academically.
Of course, the potential benefits or downsides of dual-enrollment experiences depend on a wide variety of factors, including whether a student simply happens to have a positive or negative experience in a particular course or program. In addition, transportation, scheduling, and other logistical issues can complicate programs, while a lack of orientation and academic-support services at the participating colleges can decrease the chances that some students will succeed in a dual-enrollment experience. Some may express concerns related to student safety if dual-enrollment experiences require students to leave school grounds without supervision from teachers or other adults.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.