State auditors find costs rising for Georgia’s dual enrollment program

Nov. 13, 2015 - A Lanier Charter Career Academy student works on a MIG welding assignment in a class at nearby Lanier Technical College. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Nov. 13, 2015 - A Lanier Charter Career Academy student works on a MIG welding assignment in a class at nearby Lanier Technical College. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia higher education leaders need to better define the mission and monitor the operations of the increasingly popular, and expensive, program that allows students to take college courses while still in high school, a new state review has found.

State general fund spending for the dual enrollment program — the state pays for the high schoolers' college classes — has increased by more than 325 percent over the past five years – from $18.5 million in fiscal year 2014 to $78.8 million in fiscal year 2018 for tuition, fees and books. According to the review released last week by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, taxpayers will spend $172.3 million overall on the program during the 2017/2018 fiscal year.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed budget calls for an additional $34.4 million for the program next fiscal year.

Though it offers students an opportunity to take college classes, the report says the program’s purpose needs better definition before its success and effectiveness can be evaluated. And the report noted that a single agency needs to be assigned responsibility for assessing it

“[I]t is unclear if the program is intended to decrease the students’ time for completing a degree, increase the percentage of students enrolling in post secondary institutions after high school graduation, increase degree attainment rates or to achieve some similar purpose,” the auditors wrote.

The review was requested by the state Senate Appropriations Committee. Committee chairman Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said while the program cost is “a lot of money,” the data showing more students in the program and going to college suggests it’s working. The number of students in the program has skyrocketed in recent years, from about 11,484 during fiscal year 2013 to 35,862 in fiscal year 2017, a 212 percent increase.

“Overall, it appears to be a success because it appears a large number of (the) students are going on to college,” Hill said Friday.

Auditors wrote that important discussions with higher education and public school leaders are needed about the program’s future.

It began in 1992. High school students earn college credits for taking college courses. The state pays the public or private college where the student is taking the class. South Georgia had a higher percentage of high school students in dual enrollment courses. In 2015, the Georgia Legislature put the state's Student Finance Commission in charge of administering dual enrollment.

Auditors found evidence that dual enrolled students are overwhelmingly more likely to complete their high school education and go to college. The report noted:

  • more than 90 percent of high school students with dual enrollment credit graduated high school within four years.
  • 65 percent were enrolled in a Georgia college or university during the following year after their high school graduation.
  • more than 90 percent of the courses were completed with a passing grade.

Hill noted Georgia historically had a below-average percentage of students in college and students who graduate.. The University System of Georgia's most recent six-year graduation rate was 58 percent, about the national average. The senator cited some of those statistics found in the review as an encouraging sign that the program is useful.

“If they succeed in dual enrollment, they will succeed in college,” he said.

The 41-page report, though, included troubling record-keeping findings. For example, one student was approved to take 64 semester credit hours during the spring 2017 semester, auditors found. About 1,600 dual enrollment course records from fiscal years 2016 and 2017 provided by colleges and universities lacked a matching dual enrollment application, the review found. Additionally, auditors found some colleges and universities do not use a standard method to identify students, such as a social security number, in their student record.

Hill said some legislative changes may include more uniform grade-point average standards for students hoping to be in the program. The GPA for students to enter dual enrollment programs is too low at some schools, he said. The minimum GPA is 3.0 at University System of Georgia schools, but lower at some private colleges and universities.