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Dual Credit courses are working, and Minnesota should do more to encourage participation

Paj Ntaub Lee
Macalester College
Paj Ntaub Lee

For one of us, life began in a Thai refugee camp and crowded bamboo houses filled with families who faced many tragedies. Her parents traveled many months in search of a new life, peace and freedom. Her co-author entered the world in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood with college graduates as parents. We have come together to help write a new report, "Progress and Possibilities" that praises and challenges Minnesota educators, families and students.

Despite dramatic differences in our families, each of us took Dual (High School/College) Credit courses — one in the last seven years, one of us more than 40 years ago. Our report shows that more Minnesotans are enrolling in these courses, and that the enrollment gap in these courses is closing between Minnesota youngsters from poverty and privilege. The report praises educators and families because many are encouraging students to take these challenging classes. 

We cite extensive research on the value of Dual Credit courses for students, families and the broader society. We also offer several suggestions that, while controversial, would help more families and young people participate.

Trends in Minnesota high schools
The report describes participation trends in Advanced Placement, Concurrent Enrollment, International Baccalaureate, Project Lead the Way and Postsecondary Enrollment Options.  In Minnesota, between school years 2005-2006 and 2010-11: 

Joe Nathan
Macalester College
Joe Nathan

1. The high-school population decreased by 5 percent, from 281,484 to 267,844.

2. The number of high school students of color increased by 12 percent.

3. The number of high-school students from low-income families increased by 17 percent.

4. Overall participation increased in three of the four major Dual Credit programs. It increased in AP (62 percent), IB (76 percent), and Concurrent Enrollment (20 percent), and decreased slightly in PSEO (4 percent).

5. The number of students of color increased for all programs at a faster rate than it did for the overall high school population, except PSEO: AP (53 percent), IB (136 percent), PSEO (6 percent), and Concurrent Enrollment (52 percent between FY 2008 and FY 2010).

6. The number of low-income students more than doubled in AP and IB over the five-year period, with increases of 137 percent in AP and 154 percent in IB. Low-income student enrollment rose more moderately in Concurrent Enrollment and PSEO, with increases of 40 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Dual Credit courses offer important benefits to high-school students. This includes saving money by earning free, or almost free, college credits while still in high school. It also includes reducing the likelihood of taking remedial courses in reading, writing or math on entering any form of post-high school education. Since taxpayers help pay for remedial courses, reducing the number that are needed saves us money too. Whether students are considering enrolling in a one, two or four-year program after high school, these are great options.

The report includes several recommendations to make even better use of these opportunities. First, colleges and universities should be allowed to use a "truth in marketing approach." High schools are allowed and often do promote Dual Credit courses by explaining that they can allow students to save money. But current legislation prohibits higher education from doing this. Why not remove this restriction? 

Expand to earlier grades on limited basis
Second, since 9th and 10th graders may take AP and Concurrent Enrollment courses, we suggest allowing these students to take PSEO courses on a limited basis (i.e., starting with one, to see if they are ready). We also suggest, again on a limited basis, allowing students who don’t meet "class rank" requirements for PSEO to try one course, to see if they are ready.

Behind the statistics in this report are thousands of individual stories. For one of us, the road to college was not easy. No one in her family had gone to college. The other one of us was encouraged almost from birth to plan for college.

Dual Credit programs allowed each of us to take rigorous courses earning high school and college credit. Their teachers challenged us, helped build more confidence and pushed us to develop a good work ethic. Earning dual high school & college credits allowed us to jump-start our education.

Because of Dual Credit, both of us were allowed to skip some typical freshman courses. We, and thousands of others enrolled in Dual Credit courses, saved time and money.

Kelsey Austin-King, a Macalester student, and CSC staff Joan Arbisi Little, along with the authors of this column, wrote "Progress and Possibilities." Minnesota Department of Education staff provided terrific help in gathering data. But the CSC is responsible for the analysis, conclusions and recommendations, which can be found on our website

Increases are good news, but we can do more
The overall increase in young people taking Dual Credit courses is good news. So are the even greater increases in enrollment by low income and students of color. But we can and we should do more to encourage participation.

Whether we began life in a bamboo house in a refugee camp, a middle-income neighborhood, a farm or a single-parent family, Dual Credit courses can help lead to a better life. The road into, and through some form of higher education is much easier because of these courses.

Paj Ntaub Lee is the outreach coordinator, Center for School Change at Macalester College. Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change.

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