Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 9-12

5 min read

Dual Enrollment Courses: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Jan 14, 2020 9:00 PM

According to Forbes magazine publisher and author Rich Karlgaard, our society today is obsessed with early achievement. He suggests that parents and the education system itself push students to take all of the hardest courses, earn the highest grades, achieve the best test scores and gain admission to the most prestigious universities. As an educator and parent of a high school senior with younger children moving into high school, I have witnessed and experienced this reality first-hand.

Like many high schoolers nowadays, my oldest son has taken a few dual enrollment courses (known as College Credit Plus [CCP] in the state of Ohio) during his high school tenure. Dual enrollment courses, classes offered by local colleges that are taught on a high school campus for which students receive college credit, have skyrocketed in popularity in the last 18 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 800,000 high schoolers took college courses during the 2002-03 school year. In a survey conducted during the 2010-11 school year, that number increased 67%, with nearly 1.3 million U.S. high school students enrolling in college courses. In February of 2019, the NCES reported that 34% of all students who participated in a High School Longitudinal Study took college courses while in high school. These numbers seem to validate Karlgaard’s assumptions.

Yet through my son’s experience with dual enrollment, I have developed an uneasy relationship with these courses. Speaking as both an educator and a parent, I’ve come away with some lessons learned that might benefit others that are considering this program for their children. Some of these things may seem obvious, but some of them are lessons we learned the hard way that perhaps we now wish we’d had some warning beforehand. Here are some of my thoughts on that matter, that I hope may help others before moving down this path.

The Good

Dual enrollment courses promise thousands of dollars of future savings while students earn college credit for work done during high school. This is where the promise of dual enrollment shines: If students can accumulate college credits that typically would cost more than one-thousand dollars per credit later, for literally no cost now, who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that?

There is no denying the financial benefits of the program, particularly when state law in Ohio requires the costs for tuition and materials be paid on behalf of the students.  When considering even lower cost in-state options for college, you cannot beat “free” college credits. However, the financial gains may be misleading…

The Bad

While state schools in Ohio must accept the CCP credits, they have significant loopholes at their disposal that may keep them from granting the credit.  Transfer credit policies for each college are key in this, and each college handles that somewhat differently.  Many students, including ours has found that while the credits will be transferred, they will be transferred only as “electives” as they are not perfect matches for the courses offered in the institutions that our son is considering.  While they are “credits,” they do not really advance him toward a degree, in fact they may disincentivize taking electives while in school.  Electives that would potentially broaden his perspective and enrich his life.

Given that there may be some financial gain with dual enrollment courses, there is a non-financial cost to consider. Some high school students may feel the social-emotional costs that come in removing them from a school setting that is designed for them and placing them in an educational setting that was designed for someone older.

Another consideration in this is level of the courses taken.  A basic college math course may be satisfactory for a future elementary school teacher or Literature major, but these courses are poor preparation for those planning to major in technical fields like engineering or chemistry.  Nearly every strong college program for those technical majors requires a sequence of college courses and taking those courses out of sequence creates meaningful hazards for student in their future education.  

Myths About Christian Schools

The Ugly

I’m sure this is not the case for every student, and it is dependent on the courses selected, but our family found that many of the dual enrollment offerings require more work, but they actually produce less learning.  This could be a function of the specific courses that our son has taken, but anecdotally (and I’m not sure how else to measure something like this) I hear the same refrain from those utilizing CCP.

The assumption that work done at one level of our development and education is the equivalent of similar work at a higher level would seem to invalidate the necessity of one level or another entirely. One could argue that dual enrollment courses, in essence, devalue any high school curriculum that a student forgoes in order to take the college courses.

Finally, my family has had to rethink our aims for our son’s future college education.  This happened as we visited a college with him and he was excited not just about the academic program he wished to study, but the overall academic atmosphere of college.  This school touted the development that had gone in to their “core,” and it really was appealing.  They have a holistic view of education that produces workplace missionaries and not just career-minded mercenaries who use their education and jobs as a means to a financial end.  Sitting in the presentation and becoming more and more convinced that this is what we truly wanted for our son, I glanced down at the colorful handout with the eight (one for each semester) core courses and realized that CCP credits, should we transfer them, would eliminate five of these core courses.  Then is it even justifiable to invest the extra time and new money into that education?  Perhaps the answer may still be ‘yes.’  Perhaps our son winds up transferring nothing and enrolling in these classes at the college level to better educate himself rather than simply qualifying himself.  

There is little doubt that the “value” of an education is a personal thing, and many students and families will have to discover it much the same way that we did, through the process. No two students are the same, so it is vital that families consider their child’s development and plans for the future in making decisions about dual enrollment. Yet I do think it’s important for us as parents to remember that an education is more than a financial utility that gets us on to other, “bigger” things. It is a vocation given to our children by God to develop them into right thinkers and doers, and we are best to consider the whole picture as we move forward.

Tom Burns
Written by Tom Burns

Tom is Director of Teaching and Learning at Worthington Christian School. He also serves as Teaching Pastor at Life Community Church in Hilliard, Ohio. He and his wife Christie are parents to four school-aged children and have many years of teaching and parenting experience. Before kids, Tom played baseball and golf; now he is relegated to either coaching or spectating while his kids have all the fun. He is particularly interested in the intersection of theology and learning, exploring how education​ forms the learner and the teacher more and more into the image of Christ.