Perdue: Dual Enrollment Can Help Fix the High School-to-College Pathway for Students Hit Hardest by COVID-19

As with all aspects of our education system, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and widened inequities in postsecondary pathways, especially for the most underserved students. 

According to recent data, undergraduate college enrollment rates declined by nearly 5 percent since last year across all types of postsecondary institutions. Community colleges took the brunt of this decline, with a nearly 10 percent decrease in enrollment in total and an even higher percentage of decline among Latino students (13.7 percent). Not only does this decline widen the gap between four-year and community college enrollments, it also heavily impacts low-income communities and communities of color, who have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of COVID-19.

Dual enrollment offers one opportunity to repair high school-to-college pathways and level the playing field for students coming out of the pandemic. Participation in dual enrollment programs introduces high school students to rigorous college-level material and allows them to get ahead on their postsecondary coursework. Research also shows that taking college courses in high school benefits Black, Latino and low-income students, improving college grades, college graduation rates and attainment of technical degrees.

While serving as governor of North Carolina, I launched Career and College Promise to create a comprehensive and consolidated program that provides eligible high school students — those who meet the test score and minimum grade-point average  requirements — with several pathways toward community college or a four-year college or university. The program continues to see success, with 31 percent of students in the state participating in dual enrollment coursework last year — a 4 percent increase over the previous year

However, establishing a comprehensive dual enrollment system is not enough. It is also essential to address systematic inequities in early childhood and K-12 education for those students who are more likely to be left behind. Students of color, children from low-income families, rural students and those whose parents do not have a college education must have the foundation they need to meet eligibility requirements for dual enrollment programs when they’re in high school. 

In fact, systematic challenges within the early childhood and K-12 systems are a major reason why access to dual enrollment remains inequitable across the nation, and in my home state. A longitudinal study of over 23,000 ninth graders found that Black (27 percent) and Hispanic (30 percent) students took postsecondary coursework in high school at lower rates than their white or Asian American peers (both 38 percent). Moreover, due to the pandemic, there are serious concerns about declining dual enrollment participation this year, raising questions about which students are most heavily impacted.

Dual enrollment is a pandemic recovery strategy with promise to support communities most impacted by COVID-19. But it will take commitment to reduce the barriers that stop low-income, rural, Black and Hispanic students from participating.

The first step is to evaluate existing programs to see if they are fair and equitable. I recommend using resources such as The Education Trust’s six equity considerations and the Community College Research Center’s Dual Enrollment Playbook to assist state and district leaders in conducting equity audits of their dual enrollment programming. 

Second, reach out and communicate with students and families to inform them of the opportunities available to them. For example, some postsecondary institutions have partnered with local NAACP chapters, Boys & Girls Clubs, and civic and religious organizations to engage communities of color and low-income communities.

Next, recognize that dual enrollment programs alone are not a full solution to inequities in college pathways, which begin much earlier in a student’s life. Educators must ensure that all children are reading on grade level by third grade — a predictor of college readiness and academic success throughout a child’s life — and that they continue to read on grade level when they are in eighth grade. There are inequities here, too: Data shows the chance that a Black male student will be taught to read well is close to one-fifth that of a white female student and one-third that of a white male. While 81 percent of white students are reading on grade level by eighth grade, only 53 percent of Black students are reading proficiently.

Finally, ensure that students and teachers have equitable access to technology and the internet, both at home and at schools — something we think about daily at digiLEARN, the nonprofit I founded in 2014. And teachers must have the resources and professional learning they need to support students at all levels, so more children can meet the qualifications necessary to enroll in dual enrollment programs.

At a time when postsecondary enrollment has declined, dual enrollment offers one opportunity to increase college enrollment rates, close equity gaps in higher education and ensure students are more competitive in a global workforce. However, if we do not address the existing inequities throughout the education system, we will continue to fail the very students who stand to benefit from these programs the most. Well-monitored programs, targeted recruitment and access are key to increasing college attendance among underrepresented students and closing racial/ethnic and socioeconomic equity gaps that have existed for far too long.

Former North Carolina governor Bev Perdue is the founder of digiLEARN, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning for all ages with a goal of increasing personal learning options for students and expanding instructional opportunities for teachers.

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