Five Strategies for Maximizing the Potential of Dual-Credit Courses


January 31, 2017


A college degree offers many short- and long-term advantages. However, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has found that the overall U.S. college enrollment rate is continuing to drop.

In an effort to boost college enrollment and completion, many states have established dual-credit programs that allow high school students to start earning credits toward a college degree.

Research shows that these programs correlate with higher rates of high school graduation and college enrollment, as well as both faster and increased postsecondary degree attainment.

Idaho has prioritized the expansion of dual-credit programs, with the Legislature providing funding that allows high school students to earn college credits at a lower tuition rate.

We recently published a report on Idaho’s participation in dual-credit programs—and the corresponding outcomes and opportunities—as part of REL Northwest’s work with the State Board of Education.

Here are five strategies that states, districts and schools might find useful in maximizing the potential of dual-credit programs:

Set a participation goal. Idaho’s development of a strategic plan that includes a statewide goal for dual-credit participation was essential for understanding enrollment rates, as well as monitoring progress and trends. We found that 23 percent of Idaho students in grades 11 and 12 took dual-credit courses in 2014–15, an increase of five percentage points from 2011–12. This growth demonstrates Idaho is on the path to meeting its goal of 30 percent participation in dual-credit courses.

Analyze and keep track of participation rates for underrepresented student populations. When states, districts and schools track data on dual-credit participation among all student groups, they can determine where disparities exist and promote participation among underrepresented populations. In Idaho, we found that:

  • Low-income students—that is, those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch—were underrepresented in dual-credit participation compared with students who were not eligible for free and reduced-price lunch
  • American Indian, Hispanic, Hawaiian Native/Pacific Islander, Black and Asian students were underrepresented compared with white students
  • Male students were underrepresented compared with female students

One strategy to help break down barriers to dual-credit participation is by increasing communication to underrepresented students and their families regarding dual-credit options, including the types of courses offered.

Ensure all students have access to dual-credit courses, especially in smaller districts. In Idaho, we found that students in smaller districts had a higher dual-credit participation rate than students in larger districts. We also found, however, that many smaller districts offered no dual-credit options—possibly because of limited resources and/or a shortage of teachers qualified to teach dual-credit courses in remote and rural schools. In addition, we found that smaller districts were less likely to provide a full set of dual-credit courses that complement the state’s six general education matriculation (GEM) competency areas: written communication, oral communication, mathematical ways of knowing, scientific ways of knowing, humanistic and artistic ways of knowing and social and behavioral ways of knowing. To address challenges with offering dual-credit programs and to help determine associated resource distribution, it might be helpful to conduct targeted outreach at schools and districts with no or low dual-credit participation.

Use curricula requirements to better understand opportunities. For our report, we looked at dual-credit courses that help meet Idaho public universities’ six GEM competency area requirements. Roughly one in four districts offered dual-credit options in all of the GEM competency areas. The GEM competency area in which students most frequently enrolled across the state was social and behavioral ways of knowing (such as American government, psychology and U.S. history). The least frequent enrollment was in oral communication (such as public speaking and small-group communication). Further analysis of how districts’ dual-credit courses align with the GEM competency areas can help inform ways to start and expand dual-credit programs—and help ensure they meet district- and/or state-level curricula requirements.

Examine pass rates and credit transferability. We found that Idaho’s average pass rate for dual-credit high school courses was 96 percent—but the average pass rate for lower-division college courses was 83 percent. Therefore, it’s essential to understand the difference between students who enroll in dual-credit high school courses and those who enroll in lower-division college courses. For example, the former are often high achievers, whereas most (if not all) college students have to take lower-division courses. Another strategy to consider is determining whether high school students are earning credits that could count toward a degree at both in-state and out-of-state colleges and universities.

A full version of “Getting Ahead With Dual Credit: Dual-Credit Participation, Outcomes and Opportunities in Idaho” is available to download.

See also our Q and A on the state's dual-credit programs with Dana Kelly and Carson Howell from the Idaho State Board of Education.