COVER STORY: Doubling Down
Florida Colleges Struggle To Fund Fast-Growing Dual Enrollment Programs
Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week
Among community college presidents, faculty, high school principals and other academics — not to mention students — you’ll hear nary a discouraging word about dual enrollment programs.
True, some observers complain about a brain drain from high school campuses as academically talented student leaders depart for community college campuses. Others fret that taking college classes could interfere with a student’s extracurricular activities or regular class work. For students unprepared for college-level work, there is a risk of having a failed dual enrollment course on their permanent academic record.
But those concerns have done little to slow the runaway growth of dual enrollment programs as education officials search for ways to direct more students to college and help them earn a degree once they get there.
A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics documents huge increases in the number of high schools offering concurrent enrollment programs with colleges and universities.
During the 2010-11 school years, high schools around the country reported more than 2 million enrollments in courses where students can simultaneously earn high school and college credit. Nearly 15,000 high schools, or 82 percent of all high schools in the country, offered dual enrollments to their students, a 71 percent increase from the 2002-03 academic year, when NCES last conducted a dual enrollment survey. Over those eight years, 4,000 public high schools established dual programs.
The reasons for the rapid growth are easy to understand. Dual enrollment gives students an idea of the demands of college work before leaving the comfort of high school. High school students can begin accumulating college credit, helping them graduate on time or even early. They can take courses that are not offered at their high school. Dual enrollment can create the kind of seamless educational paths that lead to improved outcomes for students like Chad Oliver.
He’s a senior at Madison County High School in Florida, and will graduate this spring from both high school and from North Florida Community College. A first generation college student, he’s been accepted at Florida State University and is awaiting word on his first college choice: the U.S. Military Academy.
“Dual enrollment has prepared me to go directly to a university,” he said. “Having an A.A. degree straight out of high school puts me closer to my goal of getting accepted at West Point this fall.”
Tessa Porter is another Madison County High School student set to receive both a high school diploma (this spring) and an associate degree (next year). She’s active in a campus leadership project and works in the college’s Office of Campus Life as a work-study student. Another first-generation college student, she has sights set on a career as a physical therapist and credits dual enrollment with exposing her to the rigors of college-level work.
“The NFCC Dual Enrollment Program has helped to prepare me in small doses for
what it will be like to become a full-time college student,” she said.
Research by the National Center for Postsecondary Research has shown that participation in dual enrollment has strong positive effects on college enrollment and completion. A related study by the Community College Research Center found that that more challenging college work can benefit not only high-achieving students, but also students enrolled in career-focused and vocational courses, which are heavily populated by groups historically under-represented in higher education and attend community colleges in large numbers.
But in some places — particularly in Florida, which has been among the most aggressive states in promoting dual enrollment — the programs are becoming a victim of their own success. College presidents around the state say that dual enrollment programs, which enroll 50,000 students, are on an unsustainable financial path.
Florida is among only six states in the country which waives tuition and fees for students enrolled in dual enrollment courses. Textbooks are provided free of charge to students who are enrolled in public schools.
The Association of Florida Colleges, which represents community colleges in the halls of the state capital in Tallahassee, has identified more dual enrollment funding as among its top legislative priorities this year. Dual enrollment programs, the group estimates, costs state community colleges $50 million a year, and the cost is rising as more students enroll.
“The Florida College System enthusiastically supports this program, but with decreasing state appropriations the financial impact….must be addressed,” the group said in a January legislative update. The group notes that since 2006-07, state funding per full-time equivalent students has declined by 28 percent, or $1,082, while enrollment has jumped by 117,000 students system wide.
NFCC President John Grosskopf is spearheading the effort to reach out to legislators. His tiny school of about 1,100 students serves a swath of six rural counties near the Georgia border. It has already eliminated athletic programs and non-essential services in an effort to cut expenses, but now is being swamped by rising dual enrollment costs. Some 245 students are enrolled in dual enrollment courses. Since 2010, NFCC has waived more than $750,000 in tuition for dual enrollment students, according to figures supplied by the college.
“We’re asking the state legislature to come up with some kind of financial support,” he said. “It amounts to a free scholarship. Ten or 15 years ago, you could absorb that revenue, but now it’s unsustainable. It’s too many lost dollars.”
A wide consensus that the dual enrollment funding model is flawed has been building for years as presidents of Florida’s 27 two-year colleges have aired their concerns, Grosskopf said. But crafting a solution has proven elusive.
Colleges can’t simply increase tuition. Gov. Rick Scott has been adamant in his opposition to such a step. Proposals to charge students or parents a fee could run afoul of legal requirements that states provide children with free K-12 education.
A fee could also have the undesired effect of closing the dual enrollment door to needy students. A 2011 decision by the legislature to impose a $90 annual fee for adult basic education, which prepares students for the GED exam, resulted in a steep dip in enrollment, Grosskopf said. Lawmakers and educators alike are loathe to repeat that scenario.
The colleges’ quest for more dual enrollment funding also threatens to undermine the relationship between community colleges and their high school partners. For funding purposes, dual enrollment students are counted as if all their classes were high school classes. High schools face financial difficulties of their own and would fight efforts to alter that formula.
Grosskopf and other presidents don’t want to cap dual enrollments or hike academic requirements to cut costs because those steps would inevitably shrink the pool of students eligible to take the courses. But they might have no alternative.
“It’s a great program,” he said. “But we have to figure out a way to pay for it.”