ESSA Strengthens Dual Enrollment, but Who Wins?

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Zachary Malter, Policy Research Assistant

his post is part three in our Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) blog series.

How will the growth in dual and concurrent enrollment programs affect low-income students? This question has been on our minds lately in light of the December 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Dual and concurrent enrollment programs are partnerships between K-12 school district(s) and postsecondary institution(s), through which qualified students get to take college courses before graduating high school. Students who pass the courses receive credit at the partner college. During the 2010-2011 school year, over 1.2 million students took dual enrollment courses. The benefits of dual enrollment are clear: students who enter postsecondary education with dual enrollment credits have higher 4 and 6-year college completion rates, compared to peers with similar academic characteristics.

As AYPF has often cited, there is great promise in increasing the number of dual enrollment programs as a strategy to help more students access and complete college. Through dual enrollment, students will gain early exposure to college-level material and a head start on earning credits towards graduation. However, before celebrating, it is worth asking: what will ESSA and the other recent changes do for dual enrollment, and which students will benefit?

Recent Changes in Dual Enrollment

Under ESSA increasing importance has been placed on dual enrollment, a sign that Congress understands its value in improving college access. Any school district seeking Title I funding will now have to submit a list of strategies to increase dual enrollment, including at the individual school level, to the Department of Education as part of its application. This process will ideally give more schools the impetus to implement and expand dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment will also become a mandatory component of local school and state report cards under the ESSA reporting requirements. Ideally more school districts will feel incentivized to implement dual enrollment so that it can be showcased in their report card. On a related note, states have now been given the option to include dual enrollment as an indicator in accountability systems they will be developing under this legislation.

There are more funding opportunities for dual enrollment under the new law. For the first time, dual enrollment can be covered by Title I grants for schools serving low income students, Title II professional development grants, Title III grants for ELL and immigrant students, and Title IV grants for student support and academic enrichment.

In addition to ESSA, Congress is considering the Making College Affordable and Accessible Act (MEAA), an amendment to the Higher Education Act, which would provide new grant funding for postsecondary institutions to participate in dual enrollment. Through ESSA and MEAA, more institutions will gain the capacity to implement dual enrollment.

The Obama administration has also put its support behind dual enrollment. In October 2015, it announced an experiment to let dually enrolled students use Pell Grants to pay for their courses.

All of these changes will pave the way for an expansion in dual enrollment over the next few years. While we welcome this trend, we still have questions about whether these programs will benefit the nation’s most disadvantaged students.

Implications for Low-Income Students

Low-income students are least likely to graduate college: according to a Pell Institute Study, only 9% of individuals from the bottom income quartile receive Bachelors’ Degrees by age 24, compared to 77% of individuals from families in the top income quartile. This disparity underscores the urgent need for strategies—like dual enrollment—that have potential to move the needle for low-income students.

In some cases, however, the upsides of dual enrollment have extended mostly to well off students who are already more likely to attend college. For example, in a 2013 study of Illinois, low-income students and students from urban areas were underrepresented in the dual enrollment population. High schools with greater dual enrollment participation already had higher academic performance, student attendance, and graduation.

In other cases, tuition costs create a disincentive for low-income students to take these courses. Nine states require students to pick up the entire cost of dual enrollment, restricting their participation. Other eligibility requirements such as course pre-requisites, minimum GPA, and placement exams can further limit access to dual enrollment.

Not all the data on dual enrollment for low-income students paints the same picture. A study by the Lumina Foundation showed that dual enrollment benefitted low-income CTE students even more than their peers. Since the Illinois study was released, Chicago has vastly increased its dual enrollment offerings. And states such as Florida, Colorado, Iowa, and Wyoming, that have made schools cover the tuition costs of dual enrollment, have demonstrated greater success in serving more low-income students.

In New York, the CUNY College Now dual enrollment program, which offers dual enrollment to students free of charge, was highlighted as an exemplar for reaching high needs and underserved populations. In addition to college coursework, College Now offers remedial courses, college workshops, and theme-based, high-interest high school courses to prepare students for dual enrollment. These programs are geared towards serving a more inclusive student population. Low-income students, who are more likely to be first generation college students, stand to find these offerings particularly critical to their post-secondary success.

With the changes ushered in by ESSA, states and institutions must be intentional about designing dual enrollment programs to serve low-income students. The success of dual enrollment programs, and our nation’s pursuit of increased college completion, depends on it.

Zachary Malter is the Policy Research Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.