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The Old College Try

Since 1999, the number of "dual-credit" students — those who take college courses while still in high school — across Texas has ballooned from fewer than 12,000 to more than 91,000. It's a trend that's likely to continue as state and local policymakers search for ways to better align curricula and to push more kids to continue their education. “Schools have started to look at it as great for kids who might not have thought they were college material,” says an official at the Higher Education Coordinating Board. “It’s both a gifted-and-talented program and a college-accessibility program.”

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Alex Duran, a senior at Crockett High School in Austin, has already become the first in his family to attend college — before ever graduating from high school. When he attends either St. Edward's University or Texas A&M next year, he’ll already have knocked out 18 credit hours of college classes that counted toward his high school graduation, too.

Duran is among hundreds at Crockett who attend classes next door at Austin Community College and tens of thousands across Texas who are enrolled in an ever-increasing number of "dual-credit" classes. Since the state first started tracking enrollment in 1999, the number of dual-credit students across Texas has ballooned from fewer than 12,000 to more than 91,000 — larger than the entire Austin school district. This blending of high school and college is likely to continue as state and local policymakers search for ways to better align curricula and to push more students to continue their education. For now, the classes, largely collaborations between high schools and their local community colleges, play out to the threefold benefit of students: They get to sample the college environment, they earn both high school and college credit for one course, and most often they get to do it for free.

When the program started, it was largely the province of white and gifted students seeking accelerated curriculum. But the classes now draw a much broader cross section in terms of both race and academic ability. In 1999, enrollees were 71 percent Anglo and just 22 percent Hispanic. By 2009, that balance had shifted to 48 percent Anglo and 39 percent Hispanic. “Schools have started to look at it as great for kids who might not have thought they were college material,” said James Goeman, a senior education specialist at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “It’s both a gifted-and-talented program and a college-accessibility program.”

At Crockett, where the racial makeup of the student body closely mirrors Austin's, and where about half of the 1,750 students are low-income, principal Craig Shapiro wants to expand the program for those and other reasons. “I think we could easily have 500 students in the not-too-distant future walking off this campus at graduation with college credits,” he said. “It gives students what I call ‘strength of schedule.’ If two students are applying for the same scholarship with the same grades, the colleges are going to look at what differentiates you. … And it’s not just for the kids who have four-year college written all over them.”

Questions about effectiveness and financing

Dual-credit programs have flourished largely under the radar, with little coordination or study at the state level to determine their long-term effectiveness. The arrangements are controlled at the local level, in scores of negotiated agreements largely between community colleges and school districts. While enrollment has skyrocketed, no data exists on the percentage of students who complete the classes, or whether their fast start makes it any more likely they will go on to earn college degrees. That will soon change, with the expected release soon of a Coordinating Board report detailing the percentages of dual-credit students who went on to college and whether they graduated within six years. But that data necessarily will focus on students who started the classes years ago, when dual-credit was much less common than today. And comparisons of dual-credit students to college students at large are complicated by the fact that dual-credit students are a self-selected population of what researchers assume are more capable and motivated high school students, said Julie Ecklund, the Coordinating Board researcher compiling that data.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature has requested a report on the costs of dual-credit. State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and other state policymakers, including Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, have raised concerns that the state may be double-paying for the classes in financing both the high schools and colleges involved. When a student at Crockett walks across the street to the ACC campus, for instance, the state finances its share of that college class as it would any other, while the high school still counts the student in daily attendance counts that determine its share of state money. Concerns among legislators emerged when they realized just how large the dual-credit program had grown, and some were irked at reports that some colleges also charged tuition, either to students or their high schools. The coordinating board just recently contracted with the Texas A&M Educational Research Center to conduct that study.

In addition to the cost, the effectiveness of such programs demands scrutiny, Hochberg said. “It’s a good idea, but anecdotally there’s been uneven implementation. There’s some really bad examples and some really good ones, and we’ve got no particular metrics to measure it,” Hochberg said.

Unlike Advanced Placement courses, which are also common on high school campuses, there’s no test at the end of the class required for students to earn the college credit, Hochberg pointed out. And the dual-credit courses can be taught either on college or high school campuses. It’s not known at the state level the prevalence of each, but the high school-based classes in particular have drawn suspicions about their rigor. “There have been a lot of allegations that they aren’t really college-level courses,” Hochberg said. 

Growing up early

Goeman, of the Coordinating Board, understands the skepticism and agrees the programs warrant more quality control. But he sees their proliferation as a healthy challenge to the traditionally inflexible nature of the high school model. “If something sounds too good, you start to question it,” he said. “We’re not used to the idea that 16- and 17-year-olds can enroll in college courses and do really well. At the same time, it’s really arbitrary to assume that the difference between 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds is so great that they can’t possibly handle the same work. It’s not necessarily true.”

Indeed, in a related trend, the proliferation of early-college high schools across Texas has produced a new class of high-achieving high schoolers earning up to two years' worth of college credits before ever setting foot on a college campus.

At Crockett, Shapiro offers his students classes both on his campus and the ACC campus nearby, but he much prefers to send them across the street. “The atmosphere is just as important as the teacher,” he said. “They’re sitting in classes with adults.”

It’s an atmosphere many of the dual-credit students at Crockett prefer — one devoid of the somewhat necessary hand-holding and busy work of high school that can annoy and bore stronger students. “You sit for a lecture, and as a learner, I prefer that over sitting there doing worksheets,” Duran said. “In high school, you have a lot of assignments I don’t like but you have to do to get the grade. In college, it’s four exams and a paper. You have a lot more freedom — and responsibility.”

After high school

Though the dual-credit market is dominated by community colleges, four-year universities are seeing dual-credit students in much larger numbers as they enter college. At the University of Texas, more than half of the students come to the campus with dual-credit classes under their belt, not including those who come with credits from other programs, including Advanced Placement classes, said Kedra Ishop, UT's vice provost and director of admissions.

The university generally supports the trend, believeing community colleges are in many ways better positioned in the local community to offer the classes to nearby high schools. UT recently formed a committee to address the college-readiness of students transferring in, including those from high schools with dual credits under their belts. UT already makes sure college advisers consult with students arriving with dual credit to gauge their readiness to make the jump into junior- and senior-level courses. “As these programs are expanding, students are starting dual credit much earlier in their high school careers. Many are coming with just two or three classes, but others come with 45 credit hours,” Ishop said. “Then they meet physics — and that’s the challenge.”

At ACC, the dual-credit programs represent both a recruiting opportunity and a chance to give students a jump-start on successful completion of a credential, whether it’s a two-year degree there or a four-year degree later from another institution. The college’s research shows students who get through a few basic courses are far more likely to graduate. “We’re trying to help more students understand that they can be college material,” said Luanne Preston, ACC’s executive director for school relations. “And we find that about 40 percent who take the dual-credit classes return to us after high school. The credits also transfer seamless to other institutions within the state and widely to public and private colleges out of state.”

The number of students taking dual credit at ACC now numbers more than 3,600 and will likely continue growing, ACC officials said. The school waives tuition for students in its taxing district and charges only a nominal fee for students outside the district. For Crockett students, the school district pays for their textbooks as well, making the classes completely free to students.

And in this economy — as tuition continues to soar — that’s no small favor to many students. “Even for families that can afford college, going in with credits can be the difference between taking 12 or 15 hours per semester, and can raise their GPAs,” said Shapiro, the Crockett principal. “For many of our lower- and lower-middle-class students, it can be the difference between college or not, or having to take loans or not.”

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