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Vice Provost, Ben Corpus, on Getting In: Dual Enrollment and College Admissions

The explosion of college credits available during high school may slow to a crawl, according to Dr. Ben Corpus. As a higher education executive with more than 24 years of experience, including Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Florida Polytechnic University, Dr. Corpus has developed teams, strategies, academic programs, and organizational structures that have significantly increased applications, headcount, institutional quality admissions metrics, diversity, retention rates, student satisfaction indicators, and graduation rates.

Below, Dr. Ben Corpus explores dual enrollment and college admissions in greater detail.

We all want our kids to have more than we had. Including college credits while in high school. While dual enrollment started to take off back in 1984 in Minnesota and Indiana, brilliant and/or ambitious high school students have always been driven to take college-level courses while still in college. But now it is almost expected. Approximately 83% of all public high schools across the country offer dual enrollment options.

As standardized testing declines in popularity and use, the high school transcript takes center stage. Parents and students now recognize what a few already knew and practiced: the rigor of the high school curriculum is of far greater value in the college admissions process than the SAT or ACT for selective colleges at every level, particularly given during the pandemic.

Dual enrollment options have skyrocketed as the market competes for opportunity and access to the best institutions. These options exploded between 2002 and 2011, increasing by 68% to over 1.3 million nationally. Some states have moved faster than others. For example, in Texas, between 2000 and 2017, high school dual enrollment students grew by 753%.

High Schools Love It

Only 5 years ago, half the states in the U.S. had dual enrollment policies. Now, every state in the country has a statewide policy about dual enrollment, except for New York, which leaves it up to each institution or university system (i.e., College Now in CUNY) and Pennsylvania, which put dual enrollment on hold due to inadequate state funding. Not unlike colleges, high schools are enrollment driven. While most are publicly funded, if enrollment declines, budgets decline, and even worse, their existence is threatened. Therefore, schools need academic products and outcome measures that will be of value to parents, most of whom are wise secondary education consumers. By offering dual enrollment, high schools are able to brandish a reputation of strong academic rigor while also offering programs that will help a student “get ahead.” Yup, two magic words for parents willing to sacrifice anything to assure their child has every advantage possible.

Dual enrollment offerings demonstrate to parents and students that the school is serious about the curriculum’s strength while also placing the student ahead of the college credit line if they are successful.

These college credits typically come at no cost to the public high school, which is funded by the county, city, and/or state. Yet, they benefit from what otherwise may have been an investment for a new academic offering.

Parents Love It

There are three clear reasons parents love dual enrollment. Certainly, every parent’s dream is to guide their child to higher levels of excellence, academic notoriety, and earning potential. The pride or itch to brag about a child’s achievement is satisfied as teens enroll in what a generation ago was reserved for the exceptional. Second, given $1.6 trillion in student debt nationally, parents and students see the chance for a reduction in college expenses as dual enrollment courses have no cost to the family in public schools. And finally, building a student’s resilience, familiarity, and self-confidence in their ability to succeed in college courses helps prepare them for the academic challenges of college life. One universal is we all want our children to be happy. By assuring academic preparation and their belief in their own abilities, parents can rest easier knowing stress, anxiety, and capacity will be less of an issue as they transition to what is supposed to be the best years of their lives.

Colleges Are of Mixed Minds, but Vulnerable

Dual enrollment courses help college admissions officers recognize students who challenge themselves academically, an important element of holistic review. However, those of us in college admissions also know the quality of those courses does not always align with what faculty expect, leading to an uneven landscape in terms of course transferability and credit absorption. Most Ivy League institutions do not accept dual enrollment courses to replace any bachelor’s degree requirements.

The inconsistency in how each college absorbs dual enrollment courses leaves high school students and parents confused and frustrated. And admissions officials hear it.

But colleges have bigger problems with dual enrollment. Planning what course will be offered by what faculty is no small undertaking on campuses. Without a steady incoming student-type that arrives with similar academic needs, distributed across all programs, colleges struggle to find efficiencies in scheduling. There is dependence on student similarities as Registrar Offices expect to be able to fill an army of “intro” courses that both fund upper-level courses and grad programs while also sequence outer year courses for undergrads in a predictable fashion. As more and more students finish those intro courses in high school, those same college intro courses are reduced in enrollment or eliminated. “What courses do I give a student with 50 college credits coming out of high school?” Well, start with change management.

Imagine, if half of all college-going high school seniors completed an entire year of college courses, would that mean half of all colleges will have three-year graduation rates? Will the loss of an entire year of college enrollments impact college budgets? Ummm, yea, dramatically. More furloughs, fewer student services, less aid to students, less faculty, and fewer academic majors. Such a scenario can significantly alter an institution’s competitiveness and marketability, especially under-endowed small, private colleges.

The quality of dual enrollment courses has been noted as a concern among college faculty. However, if dual enrollment credit courses are not academically equivalent to traditional college courses, as many college faculty suggest, they ought to make the case. Such an argument is not picking up momentum in high schools, the market, or the capital.

Policymakers Love It (For Now)

Parents decide where their children will enroll, and policymakers, who yearn for their vote, are listening. While policymakers across the country see the opportunity to support millions of parents through advocacy for dual enrollment, they do so also to support employers who seek a more prepared workforce. Advocating for college credits to focus on career and vocational training, lawmakers tie the initiative to state and regional economic drivers, expanded jobs, and savings on college costs. Furthermore, the cost for new dual enrollment policies is not immediately apparent, allowing a seemingly low-cost win for constituents. But now that’s changing. We are starting to see the weight of these programs’ costs and policymakers’ reaction as budgets have been decimated due to the pandemic.

Declining Budgets Put Everything on the Table

The pandemic’s impact on the economy has derailed momentum on almost every initiative that was in motion prior to last spring. State tax revenue declined dramatically across the country. Dual enrollment costs have increased in nearly every state in the country, and lawmakers are beginning to ask if the dual enrollment explosion makes as much sense as it did decades ago. Without a full review of the entire educational ecology, inefficiencies will grow until they are systematically addressed. Georgia has recently recognized this challenge. For example, dual enrollment costs increased in Georgia from $23 million in 2015 to above $130 million by only 2018. Policymakers have recently moved to reduce their scope down to about $100 million. Strategies to implement some guardrails on this run-away train include plans to eliminate dual enrollment for high school 9th graders, limit 10th graders to classes in technical schools, and increase the GPA for those who may be eligible for dual enrollment.

As every dime in state budgets are evaluated in the next two years, conversations regarding college enrollment, capacity, and costs of programs like dual enrollment will increase, while larger questions about principles and mission will also be challenged, given a call for change. Change that must begin at the core of our educational philosophy. Change that must address, such as the difference in educational approach and expertise for a credential economy versus a digital, information economy.

Get your college credits in high school while you can. Budgets won’t be able to support much more expansion, much less where we have landed today.

About Ben Corpus

Ben Corpus received his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Psychology. He minored in English Literature at Oswego State University, an M.S. from the University at Albany in education, and his Ph.D. from New York University in Higher Education Policy. He has also completed the Certificate Program on Negotiation for Senior Executives at Harvard Law and the IEM at Harvard University.