Monday, May 02, 2011

Three Flavors of Dual Enrollment

A few years ago, at a job interview in another state -- it would have been the worst fit ever, but I didn’t know that at the time -- I ran across a program in which the local community college more or less gives its syllabi to local high schools, and allows the local high school faculty to teach their courses for college credit. (Of course, the students have to pay tuition to the cc.) It flew under the banner of “dual enrollment.”

I was appalled, though for courtesy sake I tried to keep the cursing to a minimum. I asked the group how they ensure quality control. There might as well have been crickets in the room.

This model of dual enrollment has caught on in the last five to ten years. The term “dual enrollment” is much older than that, but its meaning has been corrupted.

In its original incarnation, dual enrollment was a practice of allowing high-achieving high school students to take college-level courses for both high school and college credit. The prototypical dual enrollment student was the “Honors” kid who had maxed out the high school’s math offerings, and who would take higher math at the local cc in his senior year of high school. (More recently, some home-schoolers have contracted with local cc’s for specialized classes for which they lack the expertise -- like Spanish -- or facilities, like chemistry.) In this version of dual enrollment, the idea was that college courses were ‘harder’ than high school courses, but that some kids were so far ahead of the curve that keeping them at the high school level was just pointless. By allowing a small number of high achievers to take a few selected classes for dual credit, we were able to serve a real educational need without imperiling the mission of the college.

In this version of dual enrollment, very few people at the college had an issue. The program was relatively small, the students were strong, and the logistical issues -- usually around transportation -- were manageable. The concept acquired a good reputation.

Recently, though, a new version of dual enrollment has emerged. In this version, dual enrollment isn’t just for the high achieving student. Depending on the program, it may be for just about everyone, or it may be -- counterintuitively enough -- specifically for the weakest students.

In the “everyone” version, the idea is to replace the last year or two of high school -- widely acknowledged to be an academic wasteland -- with the first year or two of college. Those who tout this version point out the time and cost savings to the student; some colleges have seemingly bought in, seduced by the promise of a mighty river of tuition.

In the “weakest students” version, the program is pitched as “dropout prevention.” (Some of the Gates Foundation activities fall into this category.) The idea is to remove ‘at risk’ students from a dysfunctional environment and to place them in a college setting, where, the theory goes, the combination of climate change and revealed possibility will snap them out of their downward spirals.

Though it will never apply to very many, I liked the first version of dual enrollment, and would be happy to see it continue. If some high school sophomore has already blasted through BC Calculus and is itching for more, I’m happy to offer a seat in our upper-level calculus sequence. The math department loves those students, and I don’t see much social purpose served in having them just circle the airport for the last year or two of high school.

But I have serious reservations about the second and third versions.

The second strikes me as rebranding high school. If the starting point of the argument is the pointlessness of the junior and senior years of high school, then the obvious remedy is to improve the junior and senior years of high school. Based on what we’ve seen at the cc level nationally, I can attest that one issue we absolutely do not have is a surfeit of hyper-prepared students. It’s not like they’re so thoroughly prepared by the end of their sophomore year that they can just coast. If anything, they’re still underprepared for college when they graduate. Given that, it seems to me that beefing up the academic content of the last two years of high school is the obvious fix. When the students run out of AP classes their junior year, then talk to me about mass-scale dual enrollment. Until then, I don’t see it.

The third is well-intentioned, but a little strange. Kids who are struggling academically in high school will suddenly excel when placed in developmental classes at a community college? And what message does it send to the average or above average kids in high school when they’re left behind? The argument I can see for this approach, at least in theory, is the development of a new peer group with new expectations, but that won’t happen with developmental coursework.
The whole concept seems backwards. I’m all for anything that helps struggling kids find their way, but this just seems likely to backfire.

Community colleges are colleges. I understand the temptation to try to be everything to everyone, but at the end of the day, they serve the community best by being colleges. If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.