Big questions about dual credit in Texas

Students crowd the hallway after the last bell rings at Liberty High School in Frisco. Photo by Lara Solt for KERA

The popularity of dual credit programs for high school students interested in earning college credit is growing exponentially in Texas. The state now requires that school districts offer at least 12 hours of college credit. Due to the greater accessibility to these courses, students are signing up in greater numbers, and that’s a positive sign.

For some students, the simple exposure to higher-level concepts and interesting topics opens a doorway into a world of higher education that might have seemed too difficult or not relevant enough without this experience. Data demonstrates that students build critically-important confidence by successfully completing these courses. Obviously, the intent is that this confidence will propel them to continue their education after high school.

Early signs are positive, and we are seeing an upward trend in enrollment by freshmen and sophomores at 2- and 4-year institutions, as well as students entering their first year with more credits. While on the surface this seems like a break-through development, there remain significant issues and unintended consequences that need further exploration and debate.

As a university dean, I am concerned that a small but growing number of students with transfer credits from dual credit programs are simply not academically prepared for the advanced coursework required in our college. In many cases, these shortcomings can be traced back to dual credit courses and how they are administered.

For high schools that partner with local universities or community colleges, where students are taught by instructors and professors on a college campus, the quality and rigor generally mirrors what students will experience in a college environment. In this setting, dual credit students tend to establish the necessary foundation for success.

In districts where proximity does not allow for a close partnership with a higher education partner, high school teachers often volunteer — or who are volunteered by their administrators due to budget constraints — to teach dual credit courses. As a practical matter, this means additional job requirements for an already stretched professional population. However gifted these teachers may be, the burden of preparing students to meet college-level requirements is a significant responsibility. Even with curriculum input from higher education institutions and consultants, standards of quality may be difficult to maintain over time.

Another concern is connected to the level of maturity of the students taking certain courses. For example, teaching a group of 15-year-olds a course —even an entry-level course in psychology — when they are technically too young to view an R-rated movie outside the presence of a parent or guardian — may lead to a dilution of the material and/or a resulting deficiency in contextual understanding. Some of them simply lack the life experiences of older students.

With the expansion of dual credit, an increasing number of high school graduates will walk on to college campuses for the first time with 12, 24 or even 60 hours of transfer credit — enough to qualify for an associate’s degree. Yet depending on their major, some of these hours may not apply to their program of study. For example, if a student wants to be a nurse, and took astronomy in dual credit, the course will transfer as part of the core curriculum, but it will not count toward the nursing program which requires anatomy and physiology. If all of the credits earned in high school do count toward a degree, we end up with a continuation of the maturation problem. It is conceivable that we could have 19-year old college students doing their clinical teaching in high schools just one or two years after leaving high school.

A question to consider: Will principals be willing to hire 19- or 20-year olds and give them the responsibility to manage a classroom?

As a career educator interested in student success, I am both excited about the promise that dual credit offers and troubled by the potential unintended consequences this learning option may generate.

As dual credit expands, we simply must find a way for analysis to keep pace with this movement. My greatest concern is for students who take dual credit courses in high school with the best of intentions — only to find out that they are not adequately prepared, academically or developmentally, for the rigor and social challenges that await them after high school.

If these students experience only frustration in college, we will have failed them.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter 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.

Tim Letzring

Dean, College of Education and Human Services, Texas A&M University-Commerce