By Katherine Mangan ,CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
When Xahil arrived at the University of Texas at Arlington, she was two years ahead of her peers, thanks to the 71 college credits she’d racked up while still in high school. While enrolling as a junior should get her out into the work force faster, it left little room for the kind of fumbling freshmen are usually forgiven for, she suggested. “Professors already expect you to know everything by your junior year.”
The psychology major, who asked that only her first name be used, was one of hundreds of students participating in focus groups about the advantages and potential pitfalls of getting a head start on college while in high school. Researchers from the University of Texas system considered their accounts in preparing a report they are releasing on Wednesday.
“If you’re not prepared to hack it and do poorly in the course, it could color your thoughts about whether you’re college material or not.”
The goal of their study, which also included surveys of faculty members, advisers, and enrollment managers, was to determine whether students are being well served by the explosion of interest in dual-credit classes, which earn them both high-school and college credit.
Originally offered to give high-achieving students early exposure to college, such classes have since been extended to students of varying abilities, as long as they meet minimum college-readiness standards. They’ve been touted as a way to propel more disadvantaged students toward college while saving them time and money, since they can take the classes free or at greatly reduced prices. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of high-school students in Texas taking at least one dual-credit course jumped from about 18,000 to 204,000. The rapid growth makes the Lone Star State an important bellwether of the growth taking place nationally.
Most dual-credit classes are taught at high schools by teachers whom the partner colleges approve. Sometimes, video technology beams college professors into high-school classrooms, and occasionally, students commute to college classrooms.
What hasn’t been clear, as the boundaries between high school and college rapidly blur, is what happens to students once they complete the shift. The results — at least from the University of Texas study and other small-scale studies around the country — are encouraging.
It found that, compared with students who came in without college credits, dual-credit students were more likely to stay in college and graduate from one of the system’s campuses. They also have higher first-, second-, and third-year grade-point averages, and graduate with fewer semester credit-hours.
Among the findings of the university system’s report: Dual-credit students are twice as likely as non-credit-bearing students to stick with their first and second years of college and three times as likely to graduate in four years.
That’s the good news. The bad news, for students looking to dual credit as a way to save money, is that for those who graduate in four or five years, taking dual-credit classes made a significant dent in their loan debts only when they came in with at least 60 credit-hours. Students who entered with one to 15 hours of dual credit actually ended up with $67 more debt.
There’s more sobering news in a separate study circulated for comment last week by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The board’s study, prepared by American Institutes for Research, found only modest gains for students who took dual-credit classes. One possible reason the results weren’t as encouraging as the university system’s report is that it excluded performance comparisons for students who attended early-college high schools like the one Xahil attended. These schools have a variety of supports in place to help students graduate from high school with the equivalent of an associate degree or 60 hours toward a bachelor’s.
The coordinating board’s study found that dual-credit classes increased college enrollments and completion rates by about 2 percentage points each and decreased the time it took to earn a degree by 1.2 months, or the equivalent of one summer term.
It also found that not everyone benefits equally. White, well-off students were more likely to take dual-credit classes than were low-income and minority students. And when they did, white students were more likely to benefit from them.
From 2001 to 2015, 10.6 percent of black students and 15.6 percent of Hispanic students took a dual-credit course during their junior or senior years, compared with 24.7 percent of white students. Most of the gap in participating rates could be explained by family income, academic preparation, and the types of high schools students attended, the report said.
The Future of Learning
The disparities extended to the outcomes of students who did participate. “For black and Hispanic students, dual-credit participation increased enrollment at two-year colleges but did not meaningfully influence college completion rates,” the report said. “Of particular concern, we found that, on average, the impact of dual-credit participation for students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch was negative for most outcomes.”
Students can start taking dual-credit classes in Texas as early as their freshman year of high school, and the grades go on their transcripts. Someone who isn’t adequately prepared could become discouraged from a bad grade or overly challenging course.
“If you’re not prepared to hack it and do poorly in the course, it could color your thoughts about whether you’re college material or not,” says Trey Miller, a lead author of the report prepared for the coordinating board.
Underlying both studies was the concern by faculty members across the state that the rapid expansion of dual-credit courses had resulted in students who were unprepared for college being pushed into classes that sometimes lacked the quality and rigor of courses offered at their own institutions. That, they said, can spell problems down the road.
“There is a persistent perception among faculty across the University of Texas system that those students who experience the greatest difficulty with writing and critical-thinking assignments are most often students who took the balance of their core curriculum classes in high school within dual-credit programs,” the university system’s report notes.
Despite faculty members’ misgivings, the university-system study found, taking dual-credit classes helps students succeed in college. But taking too many classes in a rush to get coursework out of the way can backfire by causing them to be stressed and overworked, students told the researchers in focus sessions.
“Students were saying, I just want to get my degree as fast as possible and be out in the work force,” said David R. Troutman, associate vice chancellor for institutional research for the University of Texas system and a lead author of the study. “There’s a sense of urgency.”
With so many of the system’s students coming from low-income families, it’s understandable, he said, that many would consider how free classes could help their families.
While the coordinating board defines college readiness as an SAT score of 1070, high-school counselors pointed out the difficulty of determining which students also have the emotional maturity and time-management skills to do well in college-level courses.
Texas law requires public colleges to give students credit for courses they’ve taken at another college, but the credit doesn’t have to count toward their major. So students who aren’t adequately advised might end up taking courses that won’t count toward their college degree, and not save themselves the time or money they had expected.
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.