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Speaking of the Economy
High schooler standing in hallway by lockers
Speaking of the Economy
March 20, 2024

Dual Enrollment: An Alternative Path to College For High Schoolers

Audiences: General Public, Educators, Students

Laura Ullrich and Jacob Walker review data they have gathered from the Richmond Fed Survey of Community College Outcomes about high school students who take dual enrollment classes. They also discuss differences in how these classes are funded.


Tim Sablik: My guests today are Laura Ullrich and Jacob Walker. Laura is a senior regional economist at the Charlotte branch of the Richmond Fed and Jacob is a research analyst in the Bank's Regional and Community Analysis team. Thank you both for joining me today.

Jacob Walker: Thanks for having us.

Laura Ullrich: Thank you so much for having us.

Sablik: Laura, you've been leading the Richmond Fed's new Survey of Community College Outcomes. You've been on the show before to talk about how data on community college enrollment and outcomes have historically been limited and how this new survey seeks to fill in some of those gaps. We'll include a link to those past episodes on the show page for anyone who's interested in going back to take a listen.

Today, I wanted to talk with both of you about some recent analysis that you've done using your survey data related to dual enrollment. Dual enrollment programs enable high school students to take college-level courses, typically through partnerships with community colleges. As with other aspects of community college outcomes, there's not a lot of data on dual enrollment students, so this is something that your survey looked at.

Before we dive into what you found, Laura, could you tell us more about how dual enrollment programs are used and their significance for students?

Ullrich: Dual enrollment has been around for a long time now, but it's been growing in popularity over the years. It actually makes up a substantial part of the role of community colleges. There are schools in the Fifth District in which upwards of 50 percent of their students that are enrolled in credit bearing courses are high school students. At just about every community college we talk to — and we talk to a lot of them — they tell us that this continues to be a growing population that they're serving.

These students are taking these courses for a variety of reasons. In some places they are in early or middle college programs where they're trying to graduate with an associate degree before they go on to try to get their four-year degree. This might be to challenge themselves. Or maybe because they want to save money — it's a relatively low or no-cost option for students depending on what state you're in. Other school districts don't necessarily have the ability to recruit the teachers that they need to teach subjects like AP Calculus or IB English. So, instead of utilizing those sorts of courses for advanced students, they'll utilize courses at the community college via dual enrollment.

Sablik: Jacob, you recently wrote a Regional Matters post about the data you gathered on dual enrollment students in our district. How many schools did you survey and what is the composition of dual enrolled students in those states?

Walker: We surveyed the majority of colleges in South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, so in total about 62 schools. We saw dual enrollment accounted for 14 percent of total credit enrollment in Maryland, 17 percent in South Carolina, 19 percent in West Virginia, and 22 percent in Virginia.

Another interesting way we like to look at this data is rural versus urban. When we divide the data that way, we see that for our rural institutions about 26 percent of total credit enrollment is high school students, compared to 17 percent at urban institutions. As Laura mentioned, some of the schools in our district have about 50 percent dual enrollment. Those tend to be our more rural schools, so very much using the community colleges to supplement the K-12 system.

Sablik: One of the motivations for creating the survey at Richmond was to measure success at community colleges. What are the success rates for dual enrolled students?

Walker: Dual enrollment students are actually quite successful in their coursework. The way we measure success in our surveys is we look at, for high school students specifically, the number of total credit hours attempted. We take that and divide it by the total number of credit hours completed successfully, so that means with a passing grade.

Our data shows that dual enrollment students are more successful than the non-dual enrollment students. For example, in Virginia about 87 percent of credits taken by dual enrollment students are completed successfully compared to non-dual enrollment students, where that number is closer to 75 percent.

Also, what we've seen is that these high credit completion rates also translate into award completion. The schools in our survey issued over 3,500 degrees, certificates, credentials and licensures to dual enrollment students for the 2021-22 academic year.

Sablik: Another thing that your team has looked at is how dual enrollment programs are funded which, Laura, you already mentioned varies from state to state. Can you talk about what you found there in our district?

Ullrich: I think the one word that would sum up the way the funding works for these programs is "complicated." It is different in each state, and then in some of our states it is quite different within states.

Interestingly, we have two states that have had recent legislation changing the way they fund dual enrollment. Maryland had a recent bill passed where, moving forward and including this year, high school students cannot be charged for community college classes. The funding for those students is having to come from local county governments as well as the community colleges themselves in some cases having to supplement some of that.

In West Virginia, the state is going to do a four-year pilot where they try out funding via appropriations. But it's important to note that they're not paying the full tuition for these students, They're paying $75 per credit hour, which is not the same amount that a community college would get for a non-dually enrolled student. But in this new model, they are getting that $75 a credit hour from the state and the students no longer have to pay.

North Carolina has probably the most well-established dual enrollment program. They fund it through appropriations. Students can do both credit options and more of what they call CTE [career and technical education], non-credit technical tracks, without having to pay.

In South Carolina and Virginia, it's a mixed bag. There are some community colleges/school districts that are able to work it out where local students do not have to pay. In general, that funding is either coming from a split between the school district and the community college, sometimes a local foundation. But in other places, students have to pay full tuition. So, the reality is that you could live in one county in South Carolina and be able to do dual enrollment classes completely for free — in some cases not even have to pay fees or for textbooks — but in other counties you might have to pay full tuition.

Sablik: Did you find that the different availability of funding changed how able students were to sign up for dual enrollment and maybe the success rates of those programs?

Ullrich: We did dig into this a bit when we started to observe the differentiation in enrollment. As Jacob mentioned, some of the highest percentages of dual enrollment we see at community colleges is at the most rural schools. But we realized that there was quite a range, even within urban institutions and rural institutions.

For South Carolina, we dug in and did research on how much high schoolers have to pay each technical college. And what we found was a clear delineation. [At] the schools where students are not having to pay, there are more students enrolled in dual enrollment programs than at technical community colleges where students have to pay tuition, which makes sense, right? If the students are having to pay tuition, especially full tuition, the reality is that many of them may not be able to afford that.

And there may be less incentive. For example, if there's a county where the community college has decided, "Hey, we're going to do this, this is part of our mission — we're going to fund this dual enrollment program ourselves," you can then imagine that the school district and other local organizations have a real incentive to recommend that program to the students. But if they're having to pay tuition, maybe not as much.

We're looking forward to doing further research on that topic. But it is certainly something that we have found interesting.

Sablik: Based on this research, do you have any recommendations for schools when it comes to thinking about dual enrollment programs?

Ullrich: I've thought a lot about this over the past few months as we have dug into the topic more. I don't know that I have any recommendations. But I do have some things I think we need to be thinking more about.

Across states, things can be quite different, right? Some states can have a lottery [funded] tuition scholarship, and maybe another one has free community college for all students like the Maryland Promise program. But it is unusual to see so much variation within a state in education. In general, whether you're looking at K-12 funding or higher ed funding, you would see some variation but not a lot of variation.

Dual enrollment seems to be a space where that is just quite different. And so, I think the states that do not have a unified state policy — which in our district now is Virginia and South Carolina — there should be some thought put into that. What is the goal, right? Is the goal for more students to do this? Do we think this is a great thing for students to do and we want more people to do it?

If we do, then how do we fund it right to make that more efficient, not just for the students but for the colleges. Some of the community colleges we talked to that have a high percentage of dual enrollment students, in many cases, are barely breaking even on those programs or they might even be losing money, depending on how they're funded. There has to be an incentive structure that works, not just for the student to enroll in dual enrollment but to the institution, to the community college to offer the programs and also to the local school district to allow students to fit it into their schedules and to make it where it's easy to transfer the credit back to their high school diploma or high school transcript and things like that.

Walker: Dual enrollment is a great way to expand access to higher education. So, I think something that's important for institutions to keep in mind is to make sure when they implement these programs that they make it so these programs don't favor one type of student over another.

Sablik: Great point. Does dual enrollment tend to benefit students who are already highly motivated, or does it also help students who may not have been able to pursue higher education otherwise?

Ullrich: Tim, this has been one of the criticisms of dual enrollment nationally — it does tend to serve a cohort of students that are less diverse than the non-dual enrollment students and also that are higher income. We do see that, in our survey, that at many community colleges in the Fifth District that is the case, however not at all of them. So, we are interested in digging in to learn more about the schools that seem to be serving higher percentages, especially minority students, in their dual enrollment programs.

But I will tell you through the outreach we've done and the on-the-ground work, what we've seen is, once again, this differs based on where your feet are planted. In North Carolina, there are high schools which are called Cooperative Innovative High Schools that are specifically designed for high school students to attend community college and get an associate degree or technical certification before high school graduation. Those high schools are located on community college campuses. The districts transport students there. Those high schools do serve as really important gateways into higher ed for some students that might not have those opportunities, especially in more rural areas.

There are other places where doing dual enrollment is quite expensive. It also can be very complicated. I've had two of my own children do dual enrollment. It has not been an easy process in either case and it has not been a free process in the county where I live. If I didn't know as much about dual enrollment as I did because I do research, I might give up on this registration process. If I didn't have the ability to pay for it, this might not be something my child could do.

Walker: On that a note on the Cooperative Innovative High Schools, we actually wrote a post for our Community College Insights blog a couple of months ago talking about those. If any of the listeners are interested in learning more, they can check that out on

Sablik: Are there things that you hope to research next in this space?

Ullrich: We are currently working on our next round of our surveys, our 2024 survey. This year, we'll have dual enrollment data from all five of our states.

We're really excited to see how the data are going to change with the policy changes in Maryland and West Virginia. We do believe, because of the example that I gave you about the South Carolina schools, that policy does matter. If it does make a difference and there are more students enrolled, what does that mean for the number of credentials or licensures or degrees that these students are getting?

This is a really active area of research in higher ed right now. We're just happy to have the opportunity to participate in it and look forward to getting the data out this next year.

Walker: I don't really have too much to add because Laura kind of took my answer. But no, it's really an exciting space. [Laughter]

Sometimes the schools barely break even, if at all, on these programs. So, I think something else that's also important to keep in mind is how does implementing these programs affect these institutions. How can we better inform policy around helping them better serve their mission?

Sablik: Laura and Jacob, thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Ullrich and Walker: Thanks for having us.

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