Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., made a distressing-but-true statement last week about high school graduates who enter college unprepared for the coursework—they are destined to fail. "Remediation isn't just hard to do. It's almost a killer," he said at a hearing.
When they start behind, they generally drop out. Just 4 percent of full-time associates' degree students complete their degrees on time, according to Complete College America President Stan Jones. Only 19 percent of students at "non-flagship, four-year institutions" complete their degrees on time, he told the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The longer a student goes without finishing, the more likely he or she is to not finish at all.
The transition from high school to college obviously needs to get a whole lot smoother if the college dropout trend is going to be reversed. Kids entering college should know exactly what is in store for them. And perhaps more importantly, colleges should know a lot more about the skill levels of their students before they show up at orientation.
The optimal way to accomplish both of those goals is through transition programs that start in high school, allowing students to earn college credit before they get their diplomas. Colleges interact with high schools in hands-on way under this model. And high school students don't view college as a foreign country. There are a lot fewer surprises when the college classes start.
Dual enrollment agreements are still the exception rather than the rule, but the college prep concept is well accepted in academic circles. "For years, the professional academy has been accepting AP credit from high schools," said Joann Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University System of Maryland.
The difference between the traditional advanced placement program and dual enrollment program lies mostly in scale and topic area. AP classes are taught by high school teachers in preparation for a nationwide test that is accepted on the college circuit. In dual enrollment programs, individual colleges need to partner with high schools and articulate exactly what the student needs to know to earn credit for professional courses at their institutions. The providers of those college-level courses, whoever they are, need to make sure they deliver those skills.
"It's a matter of sitting down and determining what those competencies must be," Boughman said.
There are good examples of sophisticated dual enrollment programs all over the country. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor showcased one of them last week in his home district when he toured Henrico Public Schools' Engineering Specialty Center. The Highland Springs model is impressive in its scope. There are programs for budding engineers and artists alike. Students can enroll as early as 8th grade. The system was created in 2011 when the local school district and community college partnered to create a brand new joint learning academy.
Cantor said he wants students all over the country to "jumpstart their careers through apprenticeships, dual enrollment programs, and public-private partnerships like those available here at Highland Springs."
Attempts to create dual enrollment aren't without problems. Just last week, Vermont legislators voted to ban private and religious schools from funding for dual enrollment programs, citing constitutional prohibitions on government supporting religion. The squabble is a black eye on an otherwise great idea—giving Vermont high school students the opportunity to take two full college courses for free.
Then there's the niggling problem of money. This story about the dispute between two Florida public school districts and a state college over who pays for high school enrollment shows the accounting headaches that can come from such partnerships.
Still, dual enrollment may be one of the best ideas out there for avoiding the crushing problem of a new college student realizing on the first day of class that she is a full year behind. By then, the battle is already lost.
For our insiders: What courses of study are best adapted to dual enrollment? How early should kids enroll in such programs? Should we worry about "tracking" kids into certain careers too early? What level of commitment from a school district and a college is required when creating such a program? What kinds of support can a state or federal government offer? Are there legislative or regulatory barriers to dual enrollment?
(Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.)