Dual credit programs are good for Texas, but need improvement

Photo by Eddie Seal

Dual credit education programs have grown dramatically in Texas as the state and school districts seek to better prepare their students for success in college and the workplace. These programs enable high school students to take college-level courses that simultaneously provide credit toward a high school diploma and a college credential. Numerous descriptive studies have documented that dual credit participants are significantly more likely to complete high school and enroll in and complete college than non-participants.

With such evidence in mind, Texas policymakers have passed several laws since 2000 to help expand dual credit programs, and dual credit participation in Texas increased by 650 percent from 2000 to 2015.

While the benefits of well-designed and well-implemented dual credit programs were well recognized, little was known about how the programs were changing during this rapid expansion and what differences those changes were making for student learning. Did the growth of dual credit have any effect on the structure, rigor, efficiency and costs of these programs in Texas?  

With the understanding that effective dual credit programs will support the state’s 60x30TX strategic plan for higher education, the American Institutes for Research was selected by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to conduct a study to provide objective evidence for informing policy debates around dual credit education programs in Texas. We recently released a draft report on the study findings, which is available on the coordinating board’s website.

Overall, our study suggests that dual credit education has been a benefit to the state of Texas. We find that, on average, participating in dual credit increases the chance that a student enrolls in college after high school by 2.4 percentage points, and the chance that a student completes a postsecondary credential by 1.1 percentage points. We also found that dual credit participation slightly decreases the time it takes a student to get a college degree by approximately one summer term.

We used past studies of the benefits of postsecondary education to place a dollar value on these benefits against the costs we estimated of delivering such programs. We found that, on average, the benefits of dual credit are five times the costs.

Importantly, we also collected detailed program materials and surveys from 24 instructors of dual credit and college-credit-only English composition and college algebra courses, two of the most common dual credit courses delivered by community colleges throughout the state. After analyzing those materials, we found little differences in the academic rigor of dual credit and college-credit-only courses taught by community colleges, suggesting that concerns that dual credit courses are not as rigorous as college-credit-only courses may not hold water.

Our study findings were generally positive but identified some areas for improvement. We found that dual credit courses have disproportionately benefited students who were more affluent and better academically prepared. The effect of dual credit was less positive for underrepresented minorities and economically disadvantaged students, partly due to lower levels of academic preparation. This suggests that we must work to ensure that students who take dual credit courses are sufficiently prepared and have the necessary supports to succeed.

The study also suggests improved advising may help dual credit students. Interviews with 102 college advisors and high school guidance counselors suggested that dual credit advising takes many forms, but is mostly driven by high school guidance counselors. Further, insufficient coordination with college advisors may lead to inefficient dual credit course-taking in high school, particularly when students are considering enrolling at private or out-of-state colleges.

There have been concerns raised about our causal impact study, including that it excludes students who take dual credit at early college high schools, which we acknowledge and explain on the first page of the study. We decided to focus on dual credit programs offered through traditional high schools because this is how most students experience dual credit, not through unique programs like early college high schools. Also, as we note in the study, two experimental studies, including one by American Institutes for Research, had already documented the positive effects of early college high schools for a wide range of students, including those who are historically underrepresented in postsecondary education.

Our methodology was also called into question in a recent TribTalk op-ed by Mike Villarreal of the University of Texas at San Antonio. We recognize that there are always limitations with any study’s methodology and are careful to highlight them in the report. Our study has undergone extensive quality assurance processes at the American Institutes for Research and the coordinating board, has been presented at two academic conferences, and has been shared with numerous external researchers. We stand by the findings.

It is important to note that most existing studies of general dual credit programs have used descriptive methods that compare outcomes of students taking dual credit to those of students who do not, sometimes controlling directly for student-level factors, such as race and ethnicity, and test scores. Such studies are bound to paint a rosy picture for dual credit because they are unable to account for unobservable factors like a student’s desire and motivation to enroll, persist, and succeed in college. For instance, a recent University of Texas System study documented the primary reasons students cite for taking dual credit, such as to “knock out a few courses before college,” or to “improve their GPA and get into a better college.” This suggests that many students had already decided to go to college prior to taking a dual credit course, a fact that would skew the results of a descriptive study.

For this reason, Dr. Villarreal also recently released a causal impact study of dual credit programs in Texas that uses similar data and a strategy that is nearly identical to ours. While we implement our methodologies in slightly different ways, both studies use differences in the timing and extent of implementation of dual credit programs across Texas high schools to address selection into dual credit course-taking. Thus, it is not surprising that the studies have similar implications for the impact of dual credit on student outcomes. For instance, our study finds that dual credit participation increases college enrollment by 2.4 percentage points, while Dr. Villarreal’s study suggests an increase of 1.83 percentage points. These are real and meaningful effects, but are much smaller than those that have been reported from past descriptive studies.

In the end, we agree with Villarreal’s statement that “dual credit programs deserve an honest look from Texas educators.” We are confident that the findings of our study will contribute to a well-informed conversation on dual credit in Texas and throughout the nation.

Disclosure: The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Trey Miller

Principal researcher, American Institutes for Research