For many American high schoolers, a college education remains a luxury, and one that was out of reach even before the pandemic disrupted our systems. The current trajectory of higher education costs is unsustainable—college tuition is increasing almost eight times faster than wages in our country, according to Forbes. As educational leaders and policymakers, we must ask ourselves: how can we tackle these circumstances and provide a tangible advantage to all students seeking higher education? Investments of often scarce funding must be made carefully, which is why we must grow Dual Enrollment offerings with equity and intention.
While over one million U.S. high schoolers participate in dual enrollment yearly, only 7 percent of Black students and 8 percent of Latinx students participate in these courses, compared to 12 percent of White students. However, we know how to support these students, and the 20 percent of school districts without this equity gap show us the way. The Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center studied nine dual enrollment programs across three states that have narrowed or closed equity gaps in dual enrollment for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander students. Based on this research, The Dual Enrollment Playbook describes the five principles that college and K-12 leaders can follow to design equitable dual enrollment programs.
It starts by being highly intentional in the planning stage and keeping equity at the forefront. For example, the San Antonio Independent School District prioritizes its role as the connector between students, families, and higher education. The district engages in conversations and surveys with families and students about access to college, while addressing equity by intentionally providing opportunities to students to prepare for college. At the high school level, this means using data to track students’ access to college advisors, complete FAFSA forms and meet college readiness indicators. The system supports middle schoolers with pathways to achieve high school credits. Even the youngest learners are considered, by ensuring that current literacy systems help students who are starting behind academically.
The initial growth in access can jumpstart desired enrollment trends, but it isn’t enough to produce sustainability. Equity is a holistic endeavor, and it must be applied across all facets of a student’s journey. Proper advising and academic support are vital in helping students choose the right courses for their interests and talents. Simultaneously, high-quality instruction and supportive external partnerships lend confidence to learners and credibility to the programs. Dual enrollment courses should meet quality standards, and curricula and instruction should be culturally responsive to all populations. Emerald Ridge High School, located south of Tacoma, WA, provides one-on-one sessions with 10th graders to explore their accelerated opti
ons. Their dual enrollment partner, Pierce College, has built maps that show precisely how courses will transfer to bachelor’s degrees at university partners.
Finally, as with any initiative, the program’s evaluation must be meticulously tracked, and the impact analyzed through data-driven discussions. Adjustments to remove unforeseen barriers to access can prove pivotal to the success of an equitable expansion. Leaders at the School District of Osceola County in Florida meet regularly with Valencia College to set strategies and analyze data from a custom dashboard. Using this tool, the team can easily view, for example, the number of Black students with at least a 3.0 GPA that have applied for dual enrollment from Osceola High School. This type of close monitoring allows for the early detection of potential flaws or oversights and timely correction to maintain equity in expansion strategies.
While districts will face varying hurdles, the goal to create a seamless and intuitive path between our K-12 and higher education institutions remains the same. America’s educational leaders must accept that these plans will often contain short-term financial costs and commit to them nonetheless. The expansion of Dual Enrollment programs—implemented equitably—will continue to be crucial in bringing access and opportunity to our underserved communities and breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
Gene Pinkard is Director, Practice, and Leadership at the Aspen Education & Society Program. A longtime educator and leader, he leads the Aspen Education urban district networks, supporting superintendents, chief academic officers, and other leaders as they deepen their learning and refine their improvement strategies.
Pedro Martinez is Superintendent at San Antonio ISD, TX. A data-driven leader with in-depth knowledge of academic reform strategies who firmly believes students will rise to the challenge with the proper support.
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