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Dual Enrollment: Increasing Early Access to Postsecondary Education

This piece was originally published by Education Commission of the States and is reprinted below with permission.

This post is a collaboration with guest author, Gregory Kienzl, principal strategist at ACT.

“I hear this over and over, ‘We are not a college family,’” Texas State Sen. José Menéndez told a group of institutional leaders at an event hosted by ACT this month. “But dual enrollment can change that.”

The event celebrated a U.S. Department of Education Experimental Sites initiative that awards postsecondary-level grants from the Pell program to low-income high school students in dual enrollment programs leading to a credential. The initiative, if shown to be effective, “could be an important tool for families confronting the joint challenges of college access and affordability,” he concluded.

In the Experimental Site institutions, incoming dually enrolled students may be eligible to receive a federal Pell Grant to support their dual enrollment experience. These grants count toward students’ lifetime eligibility for Pell, and this early access may allow flexibility to earn credits before a high school diploma is conferred.

While dual enrollment offers many benefits to students seeking to bank as many postsecondary credits as possible, implementing effective policies is not without its challenges. First, students have to be made aware of the opportunities available and how to take advantage of them. Ensuring affordability — which extends beyond tuition and fees to books, supplies and travel costs — is also paramount. Additionally, state higher education agencies and institutions are responsible for ensuring rigor, while balancing equitable access to postsecondary-level courses. Finally, postsecondary institutions have to quickly evaluate incoming students’ transfer credits, ensuring credits bring students closer to a postsecondary credential.

Early access to Pell Grants may be an avenue to remove financial barriers for students seeking dual enrollment. In nine states, dually enrolled students bear the responsibility for covering their tuition, according to our 50-State Comparison. In 13 states, footing the bill is a local decision; and in 12 more, multiple programs exist — all with unique requirements that may lead to confusion for students who are interested in dual enrollment but cannot afford the cost.

While dual enrollment can reduce postsecondary costs for students, as Menéndez pointed out, its success can be tempered by issues in funding and implementation. As the Experimental Sites initiative seeks new ways to advance affordability for students seeking postsecondary education, it will be pivotal that rigorous evaluation take place and be publicly available to inform policy debates.


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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.

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