State of the Profession: Maintaining Academic Standards in Dual-Enrollment Courses

By Anne Friedman

So, what’s the rush? A seventh-grader in your 101 class? A college course for fourteen-year-olds at the local high school? Complaints abound about students not being well prepared for college, yet state governments, boards of trustees, and local college and high school administrators across the country are formulating policies that allow tweens and teens to take, for college credit, such dual-enrollment courses.

These courses, also referred to as dual-credit or concurrent-enrollment courses, are now offered in forty-eight states, primarily at community colleges but also at the baccalaureate level. Community colleges make up one-third of higher education institutions nationally and, according to Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, 30 percent of the students at those colleges are in dual-enrollment programs. The proliferation of these courses makes it critical for the AAUP to address the issues they raise. The Association’s Committee on Community Colleges has done just that by publishing a Statement on Dual Enrollment that provides context and recommendations for college faculty members who are facing these issues. While acknowledging differences in how dual-enrollment programs are designed and implemented across the country, the statement focuses on the common concerns of college faculty: maintaining a commitment to academic quality and standards, the integrity of course offerings, the academic freedom of the classroom instructor, and the principles of shared governance.

Proponents of dual-enrollment programs emphasize the benefits of an early introduction to the college environment. Students will face more challenging learning experiences, they say, and will be more motivated to earn a college degree. Proponents also argue that these offerings make college more affordable by decreasing time to graduation. Yet there is no conclusive research to back up these claims.

Increasingly, K–12 and higher education administrators and state legislators are establishing dual-enrollment programs without input from elected faculty leaders, bypassing college and university governance structures. These programs are not attached to academic departments, where authority for curriculum, faculty hiring, and evaluation resides. Financial considerations stemming from decreased enrollment too often predominate over pedagogical concerns, particularly in a job-rich economy.

It is imperative that faculty members maintain academic standards in dual-enrollment classes. Concerns about academic standards affect not only the higher education institution assigning credit for the coursework but also any other institutions that accept that academic credit. Faculty in college departments should determine curricula, course material, and methods of delivery without interference or influence from high school staff, higher education administrators, government officials, or parents. If these are true college courses, faculty members should choose instructors for them using established criteria and standards. Faculty members teaching dual-enrollment courses (whether at the higher education institution, at a high school, or through the internet) should undergo the same peer-evaluation process as all other faculty members at the higher education institution.

As the Statement on Dual Enrollment recommends, higher education faculty members should ensure that their institutions work with high schools to devise appropriate standards for accepting students into dual-enrollment programs. Presenting college-level course material to students who are still in high school (or even middle school) poses instructional challenges distinct from those that arise in traditional college instruction—especially when more than 40 percent of community college students are over the age of twenty-five. A significant body of literature has established that prior learning, engagement, persistence, and motivation differ widely among students of different ages. As Caprice Lawless, the AAUP’s first vice president and a community college professor, observes, “It is impossible to teach a class when students range from those who do not yet drive to those who have driven tanks and ambulances. My eighth-grade students complain to my department chair that they do not understand the lesson. The returning Iraq War vet complains to my department chair that my course is too simplistic. I fail them and all those in between in an attempt to find some common ground.”

Informed and reasoned debate about the efficacy of dual enrollment is in the best interest of students. The institution’s faculty should have a central role in decisions to offer, modify, or terminate these programs.

Anne Friedman is professor emerita at the City University of New York Borough of Manhattan Community College and a former member of the AAUP’s Committee on Community Colleges.