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Is Georgia overselling benefits of dual enrollment to teens?

Is dual enrollment effective?

Georgia is pushing more high school students to take college courses, but there are concerns about the value of the programs.

Many top metro high schools advise their students to opt for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes rather than dual enrolling in entry-level college courses. The high schools believe their accelerated classes better prepare students for the demands of college.

But state leaders have great faith in dual enrollment. In 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed a task force to recommend how to improve and streamline the dual enrollment process. The outcome was the 2015 “Move on When Ready” Act, which reduced barriers and removed financial disincentives to local schools to have their students participate.

And it worked. In an audit earlier this year, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts Performance Audit Division found:

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-Between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, the number of students participating in dual enrollment increased by 212 percent from 11,484 students in 2013 to 35,862 students in 2017. 

-The majority (86 percent) of dual enrollment credit hours were taken by students attending public high schools.

-Most (74 percent) dual enrollment courses are delivered at the postsecondary institution followed by 17 percent being delivered at the high school campus and 9 percent online.

-Technical College System of Georgia institutions were more likely than the University System of Georgia or private institutions to deliver dual enrollment courses to students at their high school campus. These courses may be delivered by TCSG instructors or by high school teachers certified by TCSG as having the necessary qualifications.

-Although state appropriations for dual enrollment programs have increased by 350 percent over the past five years, from $17.5 million in fiscal year 2014 to $78.8 million in fiscal year 2018, these appropriations represent only a portion of total state expenditures for dual enrollment. It is estimated that in fiscal year 2018 the state will spend approximately $172.3 million; including $78.8 million in dual enrollment appropriations and $93.5 million in enrollment-based formula funding at USG and TCSG institutions.

On the big question of whether the investment was paying off, the state audit concluded: 

While Georgia’s Dual Enrollment Program provides an opportunity for many students to take postsecondary courses, a broader program purpose should be defined. It is unclear if the program is intended to decrease the students’ time for completing a degree, increase the percentage of students enrolling in postsecondary institutions after high school graduation, increase degree attainment rates, or to achieve some similar purpose. Without clearly defined goals and objectives, it is difficult to measure program success and assess its cost effectiveness.

A selling point of dual enrollment has been that teens arrive at college with credits in the bank and can graduate in less than four years. However, not all colleges accept the credits, especially private campuses intent on keeping students for the full four years. Or, the university may accept the dual enrollment math credits, but not the math department, which means the credits can serve as a general elective, but not as a prerequisite for a specific program.

At the same time, the drumbeat to march more students into AP/IB is sparking criticism. Among the worries: Students are urged to pile on AP and IB classes because it signals to colleges they’re ambitious. But given the flood of students in the classes, does it just show teens are complying with what counselors tell them they must do to get into a Georgia Tech or Emory? By expanding AP classes and IB programs, are high schools off the hook to improve all levels of instruction? Now, the schools stress to students that the most rigorous classes in the building are AP or IB and that’s what colleges seek, so kids sign up even if they’re not interested in the subjects.

With that background, here is an interesting essay by a dual enrollment writing instructor in Georgia who asked for anonymity. She shares her experiences teaching First-Year Composition to high school students:

While I would like to say that all of my dual enrollment students have flourished in the college classroom, I cannot. For some, the required leap in emotional maturity was not there. Extreme reactions whether to grades or time management become overwhelming to some, reminding us that, in a very present way, you have an adolescent in your classroom. Sometimes they are unable to cope with what is being asked of them because both our demeanor as instructors and the work itself is designed with an adult audience in mind. 

A few times, dual enrollment students have had panic attacks in my classes, highlighting the global anxiety and pressure some of these children experience beyond our classroom. Others attempt to cope with stress by disappearing; not telling their parents they have stopped attending and not communicating until they have missed too many deadlines. 

High school counselors will withdraw these students before any permanent damage occurs to their transcripts, but I wonder about other damage that takes place in the form of internalized failure or faulty coping patterns they carry with them to subsequent classes. Unlike high school teachers who receive training in adolescent psychology, I have only my experience as a parent to assist me in dealing with such challenges. As dual enrollment becomes the norm across the country, graduate programs that service these students will need to adjust their curriculum requirements to include such training.

Then there are the logistical obstacles I have seen dual enrollment students face. In addition to the intellectual adjustment they make from being in high school part of the day to a college campus, they must also keep track of two different calendars. High school cancellations and breaks have no impact on college classes; spring break may occur in a different month. Class times begin and end according to their own institutional needs. 

Often dual enrollment students face the stress of a difficult commute, exacerbating emotional challenges. These are not ideal circumstances for any student, but for less experienced teen drivers, it results in car accidents. Once these students arrive in their college class, they often struggle with a different online learning platform from the one they use—if any--in high school. Submission of files, reading Turn it In reports, even knowing what it means to “cc” someone on an email may be routine in college classes, but each becomes an interaction with the unfamiliar to these students, who often will not ask for help for fear of ‘looking’ inept before their peers.  

While few students deal with all of these problems, even having a few to contend with on occasion creates a barrier to learning that in addition to the emotional and intellectual challenges, makes the dual enrollment student experience difficult in unanticipated ways. As instructors and taxpayers, we should ask whether these are ideal circumstances in which to learn.

Seemingly, the solution to many of the learning obstacles dual enrollment students face would be improved in the high school setting. Yet in my experience, this has led to more difficulties. 

To begin, the equality of anonymity does not exist in the high school dual enrollment class. Students know each other, sometimes quite well, and I have seen them snub and avoid working with others, whether for small group discussions or peer critiques, based on social and gender-related preferences. The pecking order may be akin to a teen movie, but it becomes an obstacle to the open exchange of ideas when students self-segregate and stay in their comfort zones. Coupled with these self-imposed barriers, the choice of writing topic becomes more complicated when students must consider whether they want to expose their ‘real’ thoughts to those who may be perceived as potential bullies or gossips about issues that make them vulnerable. 

In one recent case, I had a student who chose to write about his sexuality. While he was comfortable sharing ideas with certain classroom peers, he asked me to not swap his rough draft with specific classmates because he feared they would use that information negatively beyond the classroom.

Contrast this for a moment with a college student who can reveal similar personal information about themselves in their First-Year Composition class essays, but who would not have to worry about being faced with the ramifications of other students knowing this in any of their other classes, at lunch every day, and at extracurricular activities beyond the academic setting. For dual enrollment students, there is no buffer to protect student anonymity.

Ponder, as well, the limited opportunities to learn from others that such dual enrollment students face. They will rarely encounter people from different parts of the local area whose life experiences become an important part of the learning processes so vital to First-Year Composition. Instead, most of their peers will have lived in the same geographic area, sometimes the same neighborhoods, and often come from the same social class; they will have known many of their classmates since middle and even elementary school. In this regard, the classroom becomes less a repository of diverse voices but a megaphone for singular, unchallenged beliefs. 

The isolated social dynamics of the dual enrollment high school class seems to negatively impact its intellectual features as well. Shifting First-Year Composition students away from the old habits of topical writing proves much harder when they are located at the very site of such learning—sometimes even in the same classroom space—every day. 

Yet, the state of Georgia continues to increase dual enrollment funding based exclusively on increased course enrollment numbers rather than any factual study of student learning outcomes or instructor feedback. 

Outside of the social and intellectual difficulties, dual enrollment high school students face frequent logistical and cultural impediments to learning. Occasional half days, abbreviated times, random closures, teacher in-service days—these all must be absorbed by dual enrollment students and their instructors, who may find their flexibility stretched. Prior to the beginning of this semester’s fall classes, I was given a calendar of dates that included planned days off for the high school. What I also needed was a schedule of events that inevitably impact the days and attention of students when we did meet: homecoming week; the tacit understanding that fall break stretches into the entire week even though only two days are officially ‘off,’ and school field trips. I struggle with the reality that my students have every right to be immersed in the excitement of the final days of their high school world, even as they have one foot in the college door while in my classroom. 

And because so much of that world subsumes the time spent in First-Year Composition, it is all too easy for my students to push back against any changes to familiar high school policies. 

When they are absent, my dual enrollment students neglect to keep up with their course work to be prepared for the next class. As instructors, we include this information in our course syllabus and remind them from day one to plan ahead for any absences. 

Yet all too often, I have students arrive after missing classes asking me, “What did I miss?” or attempting to turn in a peer critique that was due online the previous week. Not only is the work late; their peer has moved well past that stage of writing, rendering their feedback useless. When all of their high school classes place students in that same passive position, perhaps it is too much expect them to make this sudden shift to more pro-active, self-directed learning. Yet, I expect this of my college students without question. 

Dual enrolled students are subject to their parents’ determination of their health, family plans, and even whether they have access to a computer and for how long, as one of my students recently told me. If students do not have the autonomy to make these decisions regarding their education, is it really fair to assign them a zero for missed classwork? The specter of parental control looms beyond these issues and well into potential FERPA violation territory for many dual enrollment students. Shielded for the most part from parents whose children are of legal age, I have had multiple interactions with the parents of students who were still 17. These students are in a gray area legally, and I often agree with the parental concerns because their children are struggling. Yet, in spite of my urging them to have their child come to my office hours, seek tutoring, or to ask them questions, parents also have a difficult time disengaging from established high school habits. In sharp contrast, I have only received one communication from the parent of a dual enrollment student while teaching at a college campus in the past decade. 

So, maybe the conundrum presented by dual enrollment students can be solved by seeking neutral ground in the online classroom. Are online dual enrollment classes a place where these differences and challenges disappear? 

So far, my experience indicates yes and no. For the best high school students, those who are capable and independent learners with strong skills already, online dual enrollment classes allow them the freedom to thrive within the equality of anonymity. These students become true class leaders, and as an instructor, it becomes a pleasure to see their voices emerge and grow by the end of the semester. 

On the other hand, online classes can be a magnet for students who lack a desire to engage or who have problems with academic honesty. Once these students are caught and receive a zero on an assignment or two, they often drop the class because they do not want to “mess up their GPA.” 

For these widely divergent extremes, teaching dual enrollment students in an online course seems akin to the Wild West. Because there is no way to truly ascertain who is doing the work, all an instructor can do is have faith that it is the same, actual person doing all of the writing and send everything through a plagiarism filter. The need for such faith is often tempered by a lack of control over updating online course content. Departments determine when revisions are made, and in my experience, they are never updated often enough. Students at the same high school tend to share online dual enrollment course information with each other from one semester to the next. Instructors can see course grade averages steadily increase each semester as a result, and we have no choice but to continue using the same content. Of course, that this is a disservice to the learning process, that it is a system exploited by sometimes immature and dishonest students, and that it is fully subsidized by unwitting taxpayers challenges even the most optimistic First-Year Composition instructors among us.

In conclusion, it is time for those of us with an interest in teaching students how to write effectively, not just in college but as fully functioning citizens, to work to slow down the rapid and costly expansion of dual enrollment. We need to put the content experts back in charge of the decisions that impact students and we need to keep First-Year Composition for students in the college environment for which it was intended. 

High school is high school. High school students are high school students. You cannot remove the course from its setting or change a course’s intended audience and still expect the same result.  

 

 

 

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.

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