Blending high school and college can sharpen the focus of each




Dual enrollment and early college experiences help students make smooth and successful transitions from high school to higher education.


The odds were not in Oscar’s favor. Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest places in America, it was far more likely that he would quit high school than earn a college degree. But geography was not destiny. Oscar attended a high school with an early college design, and he took enough courses at South Texas College to accumulate two years of credit completely free. With a high school diploma in one hand and an associate’s degree in the other, Oscar entered the University of Texas needing only two more years of study to finish a bachelor’s degree and start work as a nurse practitioner. “I’m on the fast track now,” he said. “The amount of time and money that I have saved is going to help my future immensely.”

With a postsecondary credential essential to finding a good job but the cost of college beyond the means of many families, a growing number of high schools are offering their students a huge head start on higher education. About 1.3 million U.S. teens participate in dual enrollment, up from 680,000 when the century began (Marken, Gray, & Lewis, 2013; Kleiner & Lewis, 2005), and it’s easy to find students like Oscar with life-changing stories to tell. But the evidence is not just anecdotal; research demonstrates strong results in high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion, particularly for low-income youth and others underrepresented in higher education (Berger et al., 2014). So why do concerns from some quarters continue?

In the rush to prepare students for college and careers, say critics, we are softening the distinction between high school and higher education. “The best service a school can provide is to prepare students for college, not substitute for it. The line between the two shouldn’t blur,” as one university vice president put it years ago (Sharfman, 2010). Scholar and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn, Jr., is characteristically blunt: “Where’s the quality control? How do we know these are real college courses?” he asks in recent essays (Finn, 2017a, 2017b), adding, “At a time when elevating academic standards is a major goal of education reformers, it seems ironic — perhaps outrageous is the most apt word — that we risk the erosion of such standards during the crucial transition from high school to college.”

Admittedly, there are important questions to ask about where high school should end and college should begin, as well as a worthwhile debate about the integrity of the college experience for high school students: Do dual-enrollment and early college strategies truly lift up young people to prepare them for college-level work? Or do they water down college to make it accessible to younger teens? In other words, as we strive to make high school more like college, are we making college too much like high school? If so many high school students can complete some college, are four years of high school necessary? Ultimately, what is the purpose of each?




An essential role for each, with some blurriness in between 

We agree that high schools and colleges each have important and distinct roles to play in American education. But blurring the boundary that separates high school from college can improve the educational experience — and increase the odds of student success — on both sides. It does not inherently lead to an erosion in quality of either.

In a world where most jobs at a living wage require at least some postsecondary education or training, earning a high school diploma is a necessary but insufficient step toward supporting oneself and one’s family (Carnevale et al., 2017). High school no longer can operate as a self-contained preparatory experience for the future that ostensibly culminates in all that students need to know by graduation. High schools still have a unique responsibility to teach a broad set of skills that help prepare people for life after high school whether or not they pursue further education. A strong foundation in English, mathematics, science, history, and social studies is important for understanding how nature and social systems work — knowledge that is crucial for making educated decisions as a citizen. Just as important, high schools must support students in learning how to learn, to think critically, to act collaboratively, and to communicate effectively — skills that are crucial for adapting to a rapidly changing economy.

But these core functions must be complemented by the goal of providing momentum into college, our society’s primary pathway to family-sustaining work. College should not supplant high school. But it is not enough for high schools to offer a college preparatory curriculum. The best preparation for college success is supported, structured immersion of students in postsecondary education experiences. And as the last stop in compulsory education, high schools have an obligation to provide a smooth transition to the voluntary postsecondary system, enabling as many people as possible to earn credentials that are key to good jobs.

A growing number of high schools are offering their students a huge head start on higher education.

Unfortunately, far too many students lose their way while attempting to navigate between the two systems. And among those who start college, a shockingly high share fail to finish. By one estimate, just more than half of students (54.8%) who enter college earn a degree within six years, and black and Latino students are about 20 percentage points less likely to complete college than their white and Asian peers (Shapiro et al., 2017). Early experiences in higher education can counter these discouraging trends. When designed and executed properly, these approaches do not dumb down the college experience; rather, they lift up students so they are more likely to succeed in postsecondary education despite low rates of retention. Indeed, distinct benefits follow from efforts to blur the boundary between high school and college:

  • Academic acceleration: Early college experiences allow high school students to get a head start on earning college credit — free of charge — and prepare them through firsthand experience for the academic rigors of college.
  • Building a college-going identity: Early college experiences demonstrate to students who might not otherwise consider college (first-generation, low-income, and other underserved populations) that they are capable of succeeding in postsecondary education.
  • Easing the secondary-postsecondary transition: Early college experiences increase college success rates (which are pitifully low) by letting high school students try college coursework and learn to navigate the college environment while still receiving support.
  • Expanding options: Early college experiences give high school graduates a strong foundation from which to choose a postsecondary pathway leading to a family-sustaining job.


The evolution of dual enrollment and the early college movement

The number of early colleges has mushroomed over the past 15 years and continues to grow as state and federal governments have implemented supportive policies and funding for expansion. Early college began as a small school strategy — one school at a time — with an emphasis on providing an academic program of study leading to an associate’s degree by high school graduation. More recently, though, the early college model has been adapted and expanded, and education leaders in many parts of the country (in regions as diverse as Denver, Colo.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas-Mexico border) now see it as having the potential to transform large, comprehensive high schools across entire districts.

For instance, in South Texas, early college has spread like wildfire. Hidalgo Independent School District set out in 2006 to turn its 800-student high school into an early college. The decision to include all of the small district’s high school students was driven by a commitment to equity, and Hidalgo learned important lessons about making early college work for all learners. Students could pursue career or technical postsecondary certificates while completing the state-recommended college preparatory curriculum. Support strategies included engaging families and community members in efforts to create a new, college-going culture.

Former Hidalgo Superintendent Daniel King carried this “college for all” vision to nearby Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA) when he assumed leadership in 2007. Today, all five of PSJA’s comprehensive high schools are early colleges, and the district’s special-purpose campuses provide opportunities for off-track students and teen parents to earn transferrable college credits while completing diplomas in small, highly supportive settings. In 2013-14, 21% of PSJA graduating seniors had earned an associate’s degree or college-level certification along with their diploma (Vargas, 2014). PSJA’s record is proof positive that every school — even those serving students with the greatest barriers — can provide a strong connection to postsecondary education and momentum toward a degree, certificate, and/or job paying a family-supporting wage.

Indeed, while one critique of the early college movement is that it presumes all students should attend college, a growing number of schools combine early college designs with career pathways to maximize graduates’ options. In Marlborough, Mass., the STEM Early College High School immerses young people from all academic backgrounds in advanced classes and work-based learning to provide a smooth transition to college, industry-recognized credentials, and careers in fast-growing fields requiring science, technology, engineering, and math skills. Juniors and seniors take college courses through Quinsigamond Community College and students explore the world of work through mentoring, job shadowing, and internships with area employers, from the local hospital to Raytheon, the global defense contractor. Of the initial graduating class in 2015, all students graduated, 95% went on to college, and half pursued STEM subjects (Marlborough Public Schools, 2016).



Are we blurring boundaries too much? 

Some skeptics see early college’s success rates and spy trouble. They point to early college students’ strong performance in community college courses as a sign that the standards must be lower for dual enrollees. After all, if so many high schoolers can pass the courses, how can they truly be college level? Or does the fact that high school students succeed in them indicate low college standards generally?

The lack of state or national standards for higher education is critical to address, but it’s out of place in the dual-enrollment debate. While it is certainly fair to insist that dual enrollees play by the same rules as traditional college students — passing placement tests, completing the same assignments, and being subject to the same grading policies — their success is not valid evidence of the erosion of rigor in higher education.

A more logical litmus test would be to ask how these students perform after their dual-enrollment or early college experience when they matriculate to college? By the measures we have, they are doing pretty well: As noted above, graduates of early college perform better than traditional high school students. In Florida, for example, former dual enrollees have higher college GPAs and earn more college credits than similar college students who did not participate in dual enrollment in high school (Karp et al., 2007).

Who should teach college courses to high school students?

We acknowledge there are legitimate questions regarding the rigor and credibility of dual-enrollment classes taught at high schools, especially when taught by high school teachers declared “adjunct professors” by the college. However, this delivery model is often the most cost-effective strategy for districts trying to scale dual enrollment. Transporting high schoolers to a college campus can be costly and impractical, and many colleges lack the facilities to significantly expand their on-campus enrollment. As an alternative, high schools can pay college professors to deliver dual-enrollment courses in the high school building, or they can use their own credentialed teachers who have been approved as college adjuncts.

Some caution is warranted, as it can be hard to identify what makes these courses different from any other high school class. To uphold their quality, dual-enrollment courses must be equivalent to those offered on the college campus in every other way, including the placement requirements, syllabi, textbooks, and assessment and grading policies. These standards should be an unassailable tenet of every dual-enrollment program.

Research suggests that students who attend dual-enrollment programs that provide a more “authentic” college experiences leave with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed in college (Edwards, Hughes, & Weisberg, 2011; Karp, 2006). But overall, we must admit, we need to know more about how dual-enrollment courses delivered in high schools affect postsecondary success versus those taught on college campuses. Some evidence suggests there is no difference (Oregon University System, 2010), while others disagree (Speroni, 2011). Clearly, this is an important area for future research.

For now, a responsible interim approach is to use college courses taught in high schools as one tool in the proverbial dual-enrollment toolbox, while continuing to provide access to an actual college campus whenever possible so that students can experience the “power of place,” a key design feature of early college high schools. Most important, postsecondary institutions must be true partners with high schools and share responsibility for program quality and student outcomes.

Three ways to uphold quality

School districts and colleges can take several critical steps to ensure that their dual-enrollment  program or early college high school provides a supported transition into postsecondary education without losing the essence of what makes college “college.” We highlight a few recommendations, borrowed in part from the College in High School Alliance, a coalition of national organizations including Jobs for the Future (CHSA, 2017).

#1.       Faculty: Guarantee that high school instructors teaching dual-enrollment courses have the same qualifications as other college faculty. Provide mentoring, professional development, and oversight to adjuncts to ensure that their courses are indistinguishable from those taught by a college professor.

#2.       Curriculum: Require that courses taught on a high school campus follow the same syllabus as those on the college campus, use the same assessments, and follow the same grading policies.

#3.       Supports: Incorporate a comprehensive support system, including tutoring and college counseling, that prepares students for the academic rigor, cultural norms, and expectations of college.



If our country’s college enrollment, retention, and completion rates were stronger — and if gaps between low-income, underrepresented students, and their more advantaged peers had all but disappeared — we might conclude that high school and college should continue to operate as separate spheres, with a boundary crossed only upon completion of one before progressing to the next. However, as we know all too well, the status quo isn’t achieving the outcomes our nation needs, in terms of college completion and economic mobility, during this time of rapid economic change. It is more important than ever for high school to prepare young people for what lies ahead and propel them toward the degrees and certificates that hold the key to achieving their professional and personal ambitions. One proven way to do that is through immersive college experiences.



Berger, A., Turk-Bicakci, L., Garet, M., Knudson, J., & Hoshen, G. (2014). Early college, continued success. Early college high school initiative impact study. San Mateo, CA: American Institutes for Research.

Carnevale, A.P., Strohl, J., Chea, B., & Ridley, N. (2017). Good jobs that pay without a BA. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

College in High School Alliance (CHSA). (2017). How to scale college in high school: A state policy guide for implementing dual enrollment and early college designs under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Edwards, L., Hughes, K.L., & Weisberg, A. (2011). Different approaches to dual enrollment: Understanding program features and their implications. San Francisco, CA: The James Irvine Foundation.

Finn, C.E., Jr. (2017a). Quality control in dual enrollment. Flypaper. New York, NY: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Finn, C.E., Jr. (2017b). College classes in name only? Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Karp, M.M. (2006). Facing the future: Identity development among College Now students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Karp, M.M., Calcagno, J.C., Hughes, K.L., Jeong, D.W., & Bailey, T.R. (2007). The postsecondary achievement of participants in dual enrollment: An analysis of student outcomes in two states. Saint Paul, MN: University of Minnesota, National Research Center for Career and Technical Education.

Kleiner, B. & Lewis, L. (2005). Dual enrollment of high school students at postsecondary institutions: 2002-03. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Marken, S., Gray, L., & Lewis, L. (2013). Dual enrollment programs and courses for high school students at postsecondary institutions: 2010-11. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Marlborough (Mass.) Public Schools. (2016). MHS-STEM Video.

Oregon University System, Office of Institutional Research. (2010). Dual credit in Oregon, 2010 follow-up: An analysis of students taking dual credit in high school in 2007-08 with subsequent performance in college. Eugene, OR: Author.

Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P.K., Yuan, X., Nathan, A., & Hwang, Y. (2017). Completing college: A national view of student attainment rates by race and ethnicity — fall 2010 cohort. Signature Report No. 12b. Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Sharfman, G. (2010, December 16). What’s high school for? Inside Higher Ed.

Speroni, C. (2011). Determinants of students’ success: The role of Advanced Placement and dual enrollment programs. New York, NY: National Center for Postsecondary Research.

Vargas, J. (2014). Sharing responsibility for college success: A model partnership moves students to diplomas and degrees. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Webb, W. & Gerwin, C. (2014). Early college expansion: Propelling students to postsecondary success, at a school near you. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.


Citation: Vargas, J., Hooker, S., & Gerwin, C. (2017).  Blending high school and college can sharpen the focus of each. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 13-18.



JOEL VARGAS (, @JoelVargasJFF) is vice president of school and learning designs at Jobs for the Future, Boston, Mass.
SARAH HOOKER is senior program manager at Jobs for the Future, Boston, Mass.
CAROL GERWIN is writer/editor at Jobs for the Future, Boston, Mass.


  • James Vornberg, PhD

    Great job on this article! It is positive and shows how schools can really invigorate learning for high school students. In past, the senior year at many schools was a review of the earlier studies and a year to relax. (Not true of all schools, of course.) This new outlook encourages schools being more functional for all levels, especially the last two years of high school and makes the student ready for college in the new setting. This perhaps makes student ready with a source for earning funds for supporting their college years if they completed some certification of competency for a professional based position..

  • Sidney L. Brown, PhD

    Good article on reinvigorating early college, dual enrollment, and apprenticeship concepts to the next generation. This is so important for the success of this country. We still have to many students headed off to college without a vision (career choice), then creating too much student debt. and finally becoming dissolution and leaving college with fewer quality of life choices because of their high loan default rates.

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