Should Students Falling Behind in School Take Dual Enrollment Courses?

Research Spotlights /

Spotlight Author: John Fink

Study title and author:

“Should Students Falling Behind in School Take Dual Enrollment Courses?” by Han Bum Lee and Michael U. Villarreal

Study purpose: The purpose of this study was to examine whether the benefits of taking dual enrollment courses extend to students who were struggling academically in high school. Authors use statewide data from Texas to estimate the effects of taking dual enrollment (referred to as dual credit in TX) courses on college enrollment and degree completion for a subsample of Texas public high school students with lower prior academic achievement. The study also examined whether certain amounts of dual credit coursework or “dosage”, yielded stronger effects on college enrollment and degree completion outcomes.

To examine the effects of taking dual credit for students who were struggling academically in high school, the authors focused on a subsample of TX public high school students that scored lower (below median) on 10thgrade standardized tests. Using this subsample, authors statistically matched students who took dual credit courses with similar peers who did not take any dual credit. The propensity score matching technique matched students with similar demographic characteristics, 8th and 10th-grade standardized test scores, and prior completion of core high school courses (e.g., Algebra, Geometry, English, Biology).

Summary of findings: For the subset of Texas public high school students with lower 10th-grade standardized test scores, Lee and Villarreal find dual enrollment (dual credit) participation is associated with the following:

  • 20 percentage point increase in the likelihood to enroll in college after high school (76% compared to 56% among students who did not participate in dual credit),
  • 7 percentage point increase in the likelihood to complete a college degree within 4 years of high school graduation (14% compared to 7% among students who did not participate in dual credit), and
  • 14 percentage point increase in the likelihood to complete a college degree within 8 years of high school graduation (34% compared to 20% among students who did not participate in dual credit).

Findings for underrepresented students. Lee and Villarreal examined how these overall effects differed for students who were underrepresented in dual credit (students receiving meal support and racial/ethnic minorities), finding that while the significant and positive effects of participating in dual credit held for students from these underrepresented groups, the increases in the likelihood of enrolling in college and completing a college degree were slightly smaller for students receiving meal support and racial/ethnic minorities.

Findings on dual credit dosage. Lee and Villarreal also test whether the positive effects on college enrollment and degree completion differ based on how many credits students earned through dual credit, comparing outcomes for students who earned up to 3 credits, between 4-6 credits, and between 7-9 credits. Authors find that the effect on immediate college enrollment levels off for students earning 4-6 credits (significantly larger benefit than up to 3 credits, but not significantly different than earning 7-9 credits). For college degree completion within 4- or 8 years, authors find that generally, the more credits students complete, the greater likelihood they have of degree completion. The authors were unable to look beyond 9 credits due to small sample sizes, and they advise readers to interpret these findings with caution given that the dosage analysis was constrained only up to 9 credits earned.

Implications: While millions of high school students have participated in dual enrollment, many more have not had the opportunity to benefit from DE coursework during high school. This study is important because it shows that dual enrollment can benefit students who might otherwise be identified as “falling behind” academically in high school. Findings from this study raise questions about the validity of standardized testing as a measure of college readiness (students who took and benefit from DE in this study all had low 10th-grade test scores). And crucially, findings from this study call into question commonly held mindsets that dual enrollment should only be for advanced high school students. Paired with the right support, this study shows that even 1 or 2 dual credit courses can turn things around for high school students who might not otherwise be on a pathway to college. As K12 schools, districts, and their partner colleges make investments in building back from learning gains (and college enrollments) lost during the pandemic, findings from this study affirm calls from the field of educational reform to focus on acceleration over remediation.