Three Key Clubbers offer an inside look at college life through dual enrollment. Find out how they’ve benefited and the advice they have for you.
Story by Julie Saetre
Technically, Emily Bullock is a senior at Pecatonica High School in Illinois. But Bullock—an active member of her school’s Key Club—hasn’t taken a class inside that building since her sophomore year. That’s because she’s part of a dual enrollment program offered by CollegeNow, which allows her to take college-level courses at Highland Community College in nearby Freeport, Illinois. When she successfully completes a course, she receives credit at both the high school and college level.
Bullock isn’t alone. A quarter of high school students in the U.S. take at least one dual enrollment course, reports Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). In Indiana and Iowa, the two states with the highest participation rates, that total increases to 50 percent.
Why the boom? High school, college and state-level policy makers recognize that opportunities for career success soar with post-secondary education and are reaching out to a broader base of students, Lowe says.
“Going back 20 years, you saw geographically isolated programs,” he says. If you happened to go to a school that had a strong program, you got access to these courses, but if you happened to go to a school that didn’t have anything, you weren’t able to take advantage of them. We’ve seen growth coming from an intentional effort in many states to make these opportunities available to students throughout the state.”
According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, dual enrollment has become widely available at American colleges and universities. During the 2015-16 academic year, 78 percent of institutions surveyed by AACRAO offered dual enrollment options. That accessibility was key for Bullock, one of just 308 students attending Pecatonica.
“I decided to do this program to give myself more options in choosing classes,” she explains.
“I have had the advantage of being able to take more diverse and challenging courses and meet many people I would not have previously met.”
Helena Robertson is a member of North Fort Myers (Florida) High School class of 2017. But like Bullock, she spends her classroom time on a college campus. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she travels the one-hour drive to Florida Golf Coast University to study General Biology 2 (with lab) and Beginning Spanish 2. She’s enrolled in online Art Appreciation and Principles of Development courses through the same school.
“I don’t find it necessary to take classes at my high school,” she says, “because most of my semester classes at FGCU cover a year of classes at NFMSH.”
Robertson began her dual enrollment journey at a community college.
“I knocked out almost every one of the requirements to earn my Associate of Arts degree,” says the accomplished violinist, who carries a 5.55 weighted grade-point average. “Including four science classes, one math class, two social sciences and three oral communication classes.”
Not all dual enrollment students forgo high school altogether. Wyatt Dunbar takes classes full time at Neosho High School in Missouri, then heads to Crowder College for a twilight chemistry class.
“My in-school schedule has two classes as dual credit, one class as an online class and the rest of my classes are for my own pleasure, like Spanish and debate,” he explains. “This semester, I’m taking five college courses, which is about 15 hours of college credit. I take my remaining courses in my spare time in order to graduate high school with my associate’s in General Studies.”
Does dual enrollment sound intriguing or intimidating? Would you be overwhelmed or empowered? If you’re thinking of joining the college crowd before you don your high school cap and gown, consider both the advantages you’ll gain and the tools you’ll need to succeed.
Both high school students and education professionals say there are enticing incentives to sign up for a dual enrollment program.
You’ll save money. Possibly a lot of it.
“A number of states provide these courses free for students,” says NACEP’s Lowe. “But even when they’re not offered for free, they’re at a very reduced cost.”
Robertson has experienced the former. And although she plans to continue to a four-year school, students with different goals can benefit too.
“Dual enrollment is a great way to get two free years of college, basically. If you’re so inclined, after graduating senior year, it’s possible to go straight into the workforce without paying for college at all.”
Dunbar’s high school pays for textbooks used in dual credit classes, and each credit hour carries a $20 discount on the usual $80 rate.
“I’ve paid for many of my classes through scholarships,” he adds, “so these simple discounts and cost-effective measures the school creates for students make affording classes easy.”
You can try out a major without commitment.
Got your heart set on a certain major? So did a lot of students before you. But the National Center for Education Statistics points out that about 80 percent of students end up changing their majors at least once—and the average student will switch at least three times. That can mean you’ll take longer to graduate and spend more money in the process.
“If you’re interested in nursing, take that introductory nursing class while you’re still in high school,” advises Lowe. “Find out whether you like it before you take five classes in a nursing program and waste the entire semester before you realize that you’re not interested in that field.”
You’ll get a feel for college life.
“Students get some early exposure to the written and unwritten rules of college and the expectations of college courses, while they’ve still got the social support and family support of being in high school,” Lowe says.
That can be key to avoiding culture shock once you’ve relocated to campus.
“The classes are bigger, you know less people, each class is only a semester long and professors are very different from (high school) teachers,” Robertson says. “It’s a great idea for kids to get used to these new concepts, to be eased into college through the dual enrollment program, instead of being thrown head-first into a totally new type of education.”
It looks great on your college applications.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that the No. 1 factor in a college admissions decision is grades in college prep courses, followed by the strength of the student’s chosen curriculum.
“Most colleges or university admissions officers are looking to see that a student took rigorous courses during his or her high school career and for evidence that a student is capable of college-level work and has the initiative and intellectual curiosity to complete an undergraduate program,” says Meghan Collins, communications director for the Florida Department of Education. “Certainly, dual enrollment coursework as part of a student’s high school transcript is a good way to provide that evidence.”
Robertson has seen that first hand. She’s already been accepted by Vanderbilt University and is eagerly awaiting responses from other top-tier schools.
Keys to Success
If all of this has you ready to do online searches of local college catalogs, it pays to do plenty of research first. It’s important to take the right kinds of courses, understand how credits will be applied and think about how you’ll balance your schedule. Keep these tips in mind to make the most of your dual enrollment experience.
Check for eligibility requirements
States vary on who is qualified to participate in dual enrollment. Your state’s board of education will outline requirements on acceptable grade point averages, placement test scores and any other necessary achievements.
Not all schools accept dual enrollment transfer credits.
If you intend to apply at schools other than where you’ll be dual enrolled, the odds look heavily in your favor at first glance. In AACRAO’s study, 86 percent of colleges and universities accepted dual enrollment credits for transfer. However, private institutions are less likely to do so than public schools. Fifteen to 20 percent of private schools don’t accept these credits, as opposed to only eight percent of public ones. Check the policies of any schools you’re targeting to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.
Ask for guidance at both levels.
“High school counselors and the college and/or university academic advisors can be great resources in helping students determine the most appropriate way to achieve their personal academic and career goals,” Collins says. “An understanding of the different careers available and the educational requirements for those careers will help students choose dual enrollment courses that will count toward their degree or certificate and decrease the likelihood that students will take unnecessary or excess credit hours.”
Results are permanent.
While dual enrollment gives you a taste of college life, it’s no dress rehearsal.
“The most important thing students should know before walking into a dual credit or dual enrollment course is that your grade in the class will be the grade you receive on your college transcript as well,” cautions Dunbar. “It’s important to make sure you don’t ruin both your high school and college GPA because you didn’t do well in the class. Simply put, these classes have to be taken seriously.”
If you don’t, more than your chances of college admission could be in jeopardy.
“That blemish will stick with you, and it may have implications on your future student aid,” Lowe warns.
Don’t expect hand-holding.
“In college, says Lowe, “there’s much less baby-sitting. Most high school teachers give many opportunities for make-up work, for bonus points, for earning your grade through lots of assignments over the semester. College courses tend to be graded on far fewer, deeper assessments.”
“You definitely have to be more independent when taking college classes,” agrees Bullock. “Your instructors will not remind you of due dates every day, and some of them won’t remind you until it’s time to turn (the assignment) in.”
College courses focus on lectures and discussions during classes, so expect to do about two-thirds of the work on your own time—the opposite of a typical high school class.
Both Bullock and Robertson suggest keeping a detailed calendar that includes assignment due dates, extracurricular activities, appointments and other events. Ask your professor for a copy of the course’s syllabus and record every exam date as well. Then include scheduled blocks of time for homework and test prep and treat them like any other commitment.
The independence factor extends to any road blocks you stumble across. If you need help with a paper or lab project, you’ll need to take the initiative.
“The professor is often running off to the next class,” says Robertson. “Most colleges, including both of the ones I attended while in high school, have writing/tutoring centers, and every professor has office hours during which you can knock on the door and ask questions. Some classes even have discussion boards, which you can use to contact other students in the class. Libraries tend to have several study rooms with whiteboards and dozens of computers, and students are happy to join study groups. It’s actually very easy to get help.”
Get to class at least 15 minutes early.
College lecture halls can be cavernous, some holding hundreds of students. Robertson’s current biology lecture has a 250-person attendance twice a week. On the first day, she had trouble finding the building and arrived five minutes late to the 9 a.m. class.
“There were no seats,” she recalls. “There were students on the ground, writing in their laps. Now I arrive around 8:45 a.m. every day, and I get a seat in the second or third row. That’s important, especially for students with focus issues, because being in the back of a huge auditorium, possibly with other students whispering around you, makes it very hard to hear a teacher lecturing at the front of the room.”
Remember, you’re still in high school.
Even if you aren’t taking any high school classes, you’re still a high school student. Don’t miss out on the fun of your junior and senior years. If you’re doing that scheduling thing we mentioned earlier—and you should—build in time for football games, Homecoming, prom and, of course, Key Club.
“Key Club has been a way for me to stay connected to my high school,” says Bullock. “The only time I am at my high school is during extracurricular activities and sporting events. Knowing that I would be able to come back to my high school for Key Club put me more at ease when deciding to do the CollegeNow program at the end of my sophomore year. Key Club has allowed me to still feel like a high school student.”