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Will Easing the Financial Burden of Dual Enrollment Improve College Outcomes for Low-Income Students?

As I’ve noted previously, the percentage of low-income (family income in the bottom 20 percent) high school graduates that have enrolled in two- and four-year institutions declined from 55.9 percent in 2008 to 45.5 percent in 2013. Studies examining dual enrollment programs—in which students take courses for college credit while still in high school—have found that participating in such programs increases the likelihood of college degree attainment, especially for low-income students. Yet low-income students tend to have more limited access to dual enrollment programs (and similar opportunities, like Advanced Placement courses) than other students do.

In an effort to reduce these gaps, the federal Department of Education announced in October 2015 that it would launch an experimental program in the 2016-17 academic year in which it would provide—for the first time—federal Pell Grants to high school students taking college courses through dual enrollment. After inviting institutions to partner with public secondary schools or local education agencies and apply to participate in the pilot program, the Department announced this week that 44 institutions (80 percent of which are community colleges) were selected to participate.

The motivation behind the Education Department’s program is clear: while many states and colleges subsidize these programs, some do not. And to be Pell-eligible, students must first obtain a high school diploma or equivalent. By providing $20 million in the upcoming academic year for a projected 10,000 low-income high school students to enroll in college courses, and requiring sites to “ensure Pell-eligible students are not responsible for any charges for postsecondary coursework,” the Department of Education is removing a financial obstacle to dual enrollment. Along with offering dual enrollment courses, many of the institutions plan to provide other services, including academic advising, tutoring, and assistance with completing the FAFSA.

There are, however, potential drawbacks to the initiative. The pre-college Pell Grants will count toward the 12-semester federal grant aid limit, which may pose a financial burden for students who end up requiring more than four years to graduate. In an attempt to alleviate this issue, the Department mandated that only courses that apply to a credential at the participating institution could be subsidized.

A few of the proposed programs state that the course may be taught on the high school campus. Some have argued that this arrangement may actually be a disservice to students because it “blurs” the line between high school and college. Courses taught by a high school teacher and with high school classmates may not adequately replicate the experience of college coursework. Indeed, a study of dual enrollment students in Florida found that while students who took dual enrollment courses on college campuses had higher rates of college enrollment and degree attainment than students who did not, students who took dual enrollment courses on high school campuses showed no such improvements.

As an experimental program, it is crucial that it be carefully evaluated to fully understand the impact it has on participation levels, degree attainment, and return on investment, as well as what features of dual enrollment programs are effective and ineffective. This will inform future policy making and hopefully contribute to a reduction in the attainment gap between rich and poor students.

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