Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Financial Aid for Dual Enrollment

I offer this idea freely to anyone running, or thinking of running, for office.  I won’t even ask for attribution.  

Let financial aid be used for dual enrollment.

In plain English, students who have graduated high school (or attained an approved alternate, such as a GED) and are American citizens without drug convictions are eligible for financial aid for credit-bearing college programs.  (There are more asterisks, but the statement is broadly correct.)  But students who are still in high school while taking college courses -- typically called dual or concurrent enrollment -- aren’t.  

This one’s a head scratcher.  

For present purposes, I’ll set aside the issues around drug convictions and citizenship status.  They’re both real issues with disparate impacts across race and class, fully deserving of examination in their own rights.  But for now, I’ll just focus on dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment programs can be effective ways to improve college completion rates and reduce student debt.  They offer greater academic challenge than most high school curricula, and can offer students affirmation that they are, in fact, “college material.”  In some cases, that affirmation alone makes a meaningful difference.  College completion rates for first-generation and low-income students who are offered dual enrollment opportunities are higher than the rates for similar students who aren’t.  

Done well, it’s a win.  When local high schools team up with a community college -- as Middletown, Wall, and Keyport high schools did this week with Brookdale -- they can offer their students a chance to avoid senioritis and get a head start on building transcripted college credits.  

But right now, unless there’s a donor or a local program, students who would have been eligible for Pell after graduating high school have to put cash on the barrel for dual enrollment.  

That rule is almost perfectly designed for maximum harm.  It targets the students who benefit the most from dual enrollment, while having no effect on the more affluent students.  It forces low-income students, who are often in academically weak high schools, to wait it out, while their better-off peers get a jump start.  

Pell for dual enrollment would open up college classes for more students under terms they could actually afford.  It would enable more districts to participate, too, because they could reduce their own instructional costs without having to put money towards the students’ college tuition.  

I’m guessing that the rule about Pell is an accident of history.  These programs are often created with less forethought than one might like, and revisited mostly in the context of finances.  When the program started, in the early 1970’s, most community colleges were less than ten years old.  Dual enrollment was relatively rare, and student debt lay mostly in the future.  (“Free community college” was a reality at CUNY and in California at the time.)  I don’t fault its founders for not thinking of it; there’s no reason they would have.  But the world has changed since the early 70’s.  Income polarization has grown, good jobs for people without degrees have become scarce, and college costs have exploded.  In the early 70’s, this might have been a solution in search of a problem.  Now the problem is staring us in the face.

So kudos to Middletown, Wall, and Keyport for joining Raritan, St. John Vianney, Neptune, and Asbury Park in working with Brookdale to offer dual enrollment.  And any political candidates who would like to curry favor with working class parents who want the best for their kids -- not a small group -- could pick up a big win here.  Reduce local taxes, support your local community college, and help students get a jump on college: you could do worse.  Any candidates who want it, are welcome to it.  I won’t even ask for a footnote.