As Dual Enrollment Programs Boom, the Focus Widens to Career

Once ‘programs of privilege,’ dual enrollment pathways at community colleges are shifting to focus on a broader range of students and career options.

A decade ago, only about 150 high school students in the Houston-area Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District were taking dual credit courses with the local community college. The students were typically high achievers en route to four-year institutions and looking to get ahead on college courses and perhaps save some tuition money. 

Susan Jackson, deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the district, described the kinds of courses students took as “typical junior and senior vanilla dual credit courses”—English 1301 and 1302 and U.S. history among the most common. 

Today, nearly 4K students in the district are enrolled in dual credit. Some are still taking traditional general education classes, but others are studying to become HVAC technicians, automotive mechanics, or chefs. For many of these students, who may not have gone straight to college after graduation, it’s paying off—literally.

“We had to do some education and say, ‘Hey, you can go work for this contractor, and they’re going to pay you $15-18 an hour, or, before you graduate, we can get you a certificate from Lee College, or an associate degree, and you’re going to go in making $30 an hour,” Jackson says.

The Big Idea: The expansion of dual credit from “programs of privilege” to a more equitable approach designed to help students enter the workforce with their best foot forward—and without excessive debt—is part of a trend nationwide that’s slowly taking off. Some states, like Texas, have passed legislation that makes dual credit enrollment completely free for students, overcoming one of the more common hurdles. Successful programs also have solid partnerships among K-12 districts, community colleges, and local employers to build seamless career pathways that will lead to real jobs at the end.

But without the cooperation of all parties involved, including state and federal government, these programs are a challenge to build, and they require a rethinking of what—and who—higher education is for.

Dual Enrollment Booms

The Details: For the third year in a row, dual enrollment for high school students 17 and younger has grown substantially, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Spring enrollment at colleges was up overall, but dual enrollment numbers grew at a much higher rate of 10%, accounting for 28.1% of undergraduate enrollment increases.

Between 2011 and 2021, dual enrollment nearly doubled. More than 1M of those students in 2021—out of about 1.4M total—were enrolled at community colleges. The majority of those students took courses at their high schools, from teachers qualified to teach both K-12 and higher education.

The pandemic briefly stymied growth in dual enrollment, but it has since become a big driver of community college enrollment overall. In most cases, students taking dual enrollment courses count as both a community college student and a full-time high school student. 

“(Dual enrollment) has really helped as we’ve bounced back with our enrollment numbers,” says Madeline Pumariega, president of Miami Dade College. “It’s an important strategy for us in regards to enrollment management.”

At the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, dual enrollment students make up 67% of the college’s enrollment, according to Michelle Pacheco, dean of academic success and concurrent enrollment. Last fall, the college boosted enrollment by 5.4% overall, with a 7% gain in dual enrollment

Programs at both colleges represent students from all kinds of backgrounds, but especially Latino, Black, first-generation, and undocumented students—all populations that have been historically left out of dual enrollment programs

“We are seeing this kind of shift towards a broader group of students who can potentially benefit from these programs,” says Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. “We’re starting to see this shift where a student will maybe take a college writing class, but they’ll also take welding 101, so they can explore both the academic side as well as the career side.”

Apprenticeship and Career Focus Grows

Cameron Fox, a former machine tool technology youth apprentice, in the machining lab at Trident Technical College. Fox was a rising high school senior when he entered the program, and was hired in 2018 by Zeltwanger. (Courtesy of TTC)

As public concern about the price and relevance of four-year degrees has mounted, apprenticeships have grown in popularity. According to the Department of Labor, the number of registered youth apprentices between the ages of 16 and 24 grew nearly three-fold between 1996 and 2021. They make up 30-40% of all registered apprenticeships in a given year, but high-school-age apprentices between the ages of 16 and 18 make up only about 3%. Some dual enrollment and youth apprenticeship programs are aiming to change that. 

On the Ground: Since 2014, the Charleston Regional Youth Apprenticeship program has worked with Trident Technical College, local employers, and K-12 districts in South Carolina to provide pipelines for students to enter the workforce sooner. The program largely relies on dual enrollment to achieve that, according to Melissa Stowasser, assistant vice president of community partnerships and continuing education at the college. 

The program launched in response to an employer request. When Boeing opened a massive production site in North Charleston in 2011 and began hiring all the skilled manufacturing talent in the region, smaller manufacturers were left struggling to find employees. One of them was a company from Germany, where youth apprenticeships are more of a cultural norm. The CEO approached the dean of apprenticeships at Trident Technical College, which was only running an adult apprenticeship program at the time.

Joining with other manufacturers in the area, they started the youth program with six companies employing 16- to 18-year-olds in industrial mechanics apprenticeships. Today, the program offers as many as 20 different career pathways across 12 industry sectors. More than 180 companies work with them to hire high school-age apprentices.

The program doesn’t just help them land jobs, however. It also gives students higher education credentials that will help them land higher paying jobs right away. A crowning achievement for the program was when one former student was able to buy a house at age 19 after becoming a full-time employee of Cummins Turbo Technologies out of high school. 

“As the students progress through the program, they earn their high school diploma and a certificate from Trident,” Stowasser says. “All those courses in the program then apply towards an associate degree. Some of our students actually double up and they’ll earn their associate degree while they’re going through the program.”

Other states with good youth apprenticeship programs include Wisconsin, Maryland, and North Carolina, according to Taylor White, the director of postsecondary pathways for youth at the think tank New America. But not all of these programs require dual enrollment.

The college-connected youth apprenticeships, in our view, have the highest potential to be opportunities that expand options for young people so that they can be on a path to earning meaningful credentials and degrees,” White says. “But that’s often the hardest part of building them.”

A student in the Future Educators Career Academy at Ross S. Sterling High School in the Houston area. (Courtesy of Goose Creek CISD)

Slow Change: The program at Trident is still somewhat of an outlier, though several colleges are aiming to provide similar programs. Part of the problem is the misalignment between traditional dual credit course offerings and changing student demands. 

  • About 70% of dual credit courses nationwide are in the general education field, with only 30% tied to career technical education, Williams says. 

“The population of high school students who are taking a dual enrollment course and high school students who are taking CTE courses are not overlapping very much,” says John Fink, a senior research associate and program lead at the Community College Research Center. 

“Some places have really tapped into that potential and are building dual enrollment into secondary CTE programs of study,” he says. “And in many other places that just isn’t happening very much. Their dual enrollment offerings are in the university-bound accelerated academic track.”

A Family Affair 

Question of Equity: A study from the National Center for Education Statistics looking at higher education and income outcomes for students who earned dual enrollment credit found striking results. Students who were dually enrolled in high school more than 10 years ago, whether they went on to obtain a postsecondary credential or not, saw their eventual income rise above their family’s income. But the share of students in dual enrollment was significantly higher for white students than for Black and Latino ones.

Colleges and districts are finding that creating equitable dual enrollment programs requires shifting families’ mindsets about what and who dual enrollment and higher education are for. 

“The Community College of Aurora serves the most diverse population in Colorado,” says Pacheco. “For many of our students, going to college is not just an individual decision, but a family decision, a cultural decision. One of the things that we talk a lot about with families (considering dual enrollment) is, look at how much money you can save your family.”

Jackson, at Goose Creek CISD in Texas, finds herself having similar conversations. After she helped build out the dual enrollment program, she quickly realized that not all the students who could benefit from the approach were actually taking advantage of it. 

Like Pacheco, Jackson found she had to promote dual enrollment at the individual family level, convincing them that it’s a better path for many students than immediately entering the workforce at one extreme or taking AP courses at the other. 

She eventually hired outside auditors from the University of Houston-Clear Lake to evaluate how well credits transferred from AP classes versus dual enrollment classes at the eight colleges and universities their students were most likely to attend. The audit found that the path was smoother—and ultimately cheaper—for the dual enrollment students. But the district needed to make sure it was marketing the option to the right students. 

“The kids sitting in the AP classes would be successful no matter where you put them,” Jackson says. “I was trying to get the middle group—the kids who are going into the workforce, who are first-generation, who didn’t know that college was an option—and teach them about their options. To me, that’s what changes the entire scope of the community.”