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The Role of Community Colleges in Educating High School Students

Community College Insights
June 09, 2023

Twenty years ago, the concepts of dual enrollment and dual credit were relatively unknown. High-performing high school students had two main options for obtaining college-level coursework and, potentially, college credits — Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Students could only access these classes if their schools provided them, and offerings were limited, especially in rural school districts. No longer. Today, while AP and IB still exist and thrive, community colleges have stepped in to fill the gap for high school students who desire to take college-level coursework. In many cases, these students earn credits (for little to no cost) that can be transferred to four-year institutions.

Limited Data

Data on high school students who enroll at community colleges is limited. Currently, some states collect and report their own data, but information on high school student enrollment is not reported at the national level via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Researchers can estimate enrollment by using the IPEDS enrollment by age data to analyze students attending community college under age 18. The obvious problem here is that not all high school students are under age 18 and not all college students under age 18 are still in high school. Nevertheless, looking at the IPEDS data does provide evidence of the growing population of high schoolers attending community colleges, especially in rural areas.

Growing Enrollment

In 2000, students under the age of 18 made up only 1.8 percent of four-year public college enrollment and 3.6 percent of community college enrollment nationally. By 2021, this had jumped to 7.4 percent and 18.2 percent respectively.

The increase has been even more substantial at rural community colleges. In 2000, urban and rural community colleges served similar percentages of students under age 18. By 2021, the gap was considerable, with over 25 percent of total rural community college enrollment represented by students under age 18, 10 percentage points higher than at urban community colleges.

Why are more rural high school students choosing dual enrollment/dual credit? We have heard from many of our rural partners that community colleges have helped rural school districts expand academic offerings for high-performing students. It is difficult for these districts to attract teachers who are certified to teach AP/IB courses. They also may not have enough students interested in AP/IB courses to support offering new classes. Additionally, rural students, who live in areas with lower family incomes, may have greater interest in obtaining college credits while in high school in order to save money once they enroll at a four-year college.

Unfortunately, the available data does not allow researchers to dig much deeper into this story. Not yet. The Richmond Fed's Fifth District Survey of Community College Outcomes is working to change this. Are these high school students successful? Are they obtaining credentials or degrees? Do state policies around dual enrollment/dual credit impact high school student enrollment and/or success? We look forward to considering these questions, and others, as we receive data from participating states.

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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