When the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its annual enrollment report last month, the outlook was fairly bleak. Enrollments had declined almost across the board—at lower rates than during the COVID-19 pandemic, but still defying predictions that they would begin to rebound.
One bright spot was community colleges, which, after a nearly 10 percent enrollment decline during the pandemic, saw a slight increase for the 2021–22 academic year. Many experts attribute that largely to one factor: dual enrollment among high school students grew by 11 percent.
The number of high school students enrolled in community colleges had been growing at a healthy clip for years before the pandemic; in 2019, dual-enrollment students accounted for 16 percent of community college students nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. That number remained relatively steady throughout the 2020–21 and 2021–22 academic years, when general enrollment took a steep dive, according to NSC data.
Now, it’s become increasingly clear that high schoolers are bailing out many two-year institutions that have taken on water. While total community college enrollment has declined every year since 2010, students under 18 are the only age group that has increased each year during that time period, according to a report from the American Association of Community Colleges.
“The growth of dual enrollment seems to be almost propping up new student growth for community colleges,” said John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University. “Older adult student enrollment is declining and dual enrollment is holding steady, so you’re just going to see a larger share of enrollment from high school students … It’s going to be a really important constituency for community colleges to think about as part of their institutional strategy.”
Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, one of the leading national accreditors for concurrent and dual-enrollment programs, said she’s seen the growing popularity of dual enrollment reflected in an explosion of applications for program accreditation.
“A lot of the community college space is being disrupted because it’s been so volatile in terms of enrollment,” she said. “That has really opened up space for dual enrollment to play a bigger role.”
The catch, however, is that high schoolers taking a few credit hours don’t bring in anywhere near the revenue that full-paying students do—even when the cost of providing those credits is reduced by having credentialed high school teachers offer them instead of professors. The key for community colleges, Fink said, lies in getting high schoolers to matriculate after graduating.
“Colleges are not bringing in additional revenue [from dual enrollment]; most are just breaking even,” Fink said. “A big part of making this sustainable is increasing the number of students who are coming back to that college after high school.”
From ‘Programs of Privilege’ to Equity Drivers
Williams said she’s seen a “paradigm shift” in recent years as institutions move from offering advanced classes for academic highfliers to using dual enrollment as a way to expand access to higher education for underserved groups.
“It’s not about serving the cream of the crop anymore; it’s about widening the funnel,” she said.
Lorain County Community College in Ohio has been investing in dual enrollment for decades. When the college started offering dual enrollment in the early 1990s, its main goal was to offer college-level calculus classes to a few high-achieving students at the local high school, where a lack of funding precluded instruction in high-level math.
Today about one-third of LCCC’s student body is made up of high school students; the number of dual-enrollment students actually increased by almost 13 percent during the two years of the pandemic.
LCCC’s mission has evolved drastically as those numbers have gone up, President Marcia Ballinger said. While dual enrollment was once seen as a rare partnership of mutual convenience to boost precocious students’ résumés and fill empty seats in lecture halls, Ballinger now considers it a key tool in promoting socioeconomic mobility.
“For us, it’s not about increasing enrollment for enrollment’s sake,” she said. “It’s about creating a launchpad for students to move up the socioeconomic ladder … Dual enrollment is a way for us to wrap our arms around students and instill in them the confidence that they can succeed in higher education.”
LCCC’s new focus on equity and access in dual enrollment was enabled in part by a sudden influx of state support for such programs in 2015, when Ohio implemented College Credit Plus, a program that covers the cost of tuition and textbooks for high schoolers who want to enroll in community college courses.
“It completely transformed the landscape around dual enrollment in Ohio,” Ballinger said.
In 2010, 20 percent of high school graduates in Lorain County earned college credit from LCCC, Ballinger said; 10 years later, that number had more than doubled. The funding allowed LCCC to expand its recruitment at local high schools—especially those in the city of Lorain, where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
States that have invested heavily in dual enrollment have seen similar spikes. In Iowa, which passed the Senior Year Plus law to subsidize dual enrollment in 2015, 45 percent of all community college students are dually enrolled high school students—the highest in the country, up 4.2 percent from 2021.
Dual-enrollment funding arrangements vary widely from state to state. Some subsidize no more than half the tuition for dual-enrolled students, while others pay the whole bill; some include textbooks and travel costs in their subsidies. The most common funding arrangements consist of contracts and memorandums of understanding between postsecondary institutions and K-12 districts. But more states are exploring legislation or policies that would encourage more such programs through statewide funding.
At a press conference last month, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin said he wanted to make it a requirement for every high schooler in the state to earn a credential or associate degree upon graduating.
At Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, Ala., where high schoolers make up about one-third of the student body, dual enrollment has been a constant since 2016, when a state grant allowed the program to expand and offer more financial aid. This year, for instance, all dual-enrolled general education students are receiving a 50 percent tuition discount.
“[The grant] made it a totally different ball game,” said Pam Kelley, Jefferson State’s dual-enrollment coordinator. “We’re seeing an interest from schools who may serve more underserved populations, and that is what we are really excited about: the opportunity to give these students a head start.”
Racial and income gaps in access to community college courses are still common, according to a 2019 report by the CCRC. While state funding has helped narrow those gaps, the notion of dual enrollment as a privilege for high-achieving students still prevails in many districts, a dynamic that favors white students.
“We want to turn the ship away from these programs of privilege to much more of an equity lever, but we don’t have control of the engine or the stern,” Williams said. “I see dual enrollment as a potentially very strong opportunity to make higher ed more valuable and accessible for a broad swath of students, which is ultimately what’s going to solve enrollment issues in this country.”
Sustainability, Revenue and the ‘Boomerang Effect’
The community college leaders who spoke with Inside Higher Ed for this story all said that dual enrollment did not represent a business strategy; it was about expanding access to higher education and exposing students—some of whom might not otherwise go to college at all—to the benefits of higher education.
But as two-year institutions continue to face steep drop-offs in tuition-paying adult and traditional-age students, balancing that mission with the need to stay afloat may become more challenging.
In Iowa, 97 percent of dual-enrolled students did not pay tuition in 2020–21, meaning their courses were subsidized either by the state or by contracts between postsecondary institutions and partner high schools.
Most dual-enrolled students don’t pay tuition themselves, and community college leaders said contracts that provide funding for the institutions don’t bring in nearly as much revenue per credit hour as other students do. Often the institution is merely reimbursed for the cost of providing the courses—or, in some cases, not even that.
Williams said that at times, state funding leads to a boom in interest that exceeds the original funding itself, leaving colleges to foot the rest of the bill.
“Community colleges are routinely asked to do more with less,” she said. “When you take the cost barrier away, we do see states’ [dual enrollment] rates start to grow rapidly. But then when the program blows up, that line item for funding from the states becomes less and less adequate and colleges end up overspending.”
“The state policies are often designed so that the costs are minimized for students and families, and the postsecondary partners have some skin in the game in terms of the cost that they’re subsidizing,” Fink said.
Minnesota is a cautionary tale in this regard. The state passed legislation to fund concurrent enrollment in 1985 as a way to provide advanced classes to high-achieving high schoolers while filling empty seats in community college classrooms. But as the number of high schoolers in dual enrollment grew, that model has proven increasingly inadequate.
A report this year from the independent firm Zenith Consulting described Minnesota’s funding model as a “mismatch for today’s conceptualization of dual enrollment serving a larger number of students with a wider range of academic preparation and interests.”
Fink said that the up-front investment can make dual enrollment a daunting prospect for cash-strapped community colleges that lack sufficient state funding. But as dual enrollment eats up more of the community college market share, making those investments could prove a promising strategy for a sector with dwindling options—especially if it leads those high school students to enroll full- or part-time after graduating.
LCCC has been fairly successful in converting dual-enrolled high schoolers to matriculated college students—what Williams calls “the boomerang effect.” Twenty-six percent of students who earn dual-enrolled credits with the college end up matriculating after graduation, and almost half of all LCCC students who enroll right out of high school arrive having already earned credits there, according to data provided by the college.
The key for institutions, Williams said, lies in their ability to do more than offer individual courses. Investment in advisers for dual-enrolled students and extracurriculars that bring them to campus can go a long way toward converting a curious high schooler with a few credit hours into a full-time student after graduation.
“Institutions that invest in dual enrollment are getting early access to college-capable students. But it’s what they do next that matters most,” she said. “It’s the difference between offering courses as a transaction between students and the institution and building an actual relationship with those students.”