What I Learned as a Dual Enrollment Instructor

Students type on top of piles of books below text reading "DUAL ENROLLMENT"
DEIBStudent Success

Article Summary

  • One in three high school students are dually enrolled or take college courses for credit.|Many dual enrollment students aren’t aware of the expectations of college classrooms.|Racial and income-based inequities exist within dual enrollment programs.|Instructors should remind students of college-level expectations while sympathizing with high school responsibilities.
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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Lisa Heller Boragine is a Communication Studies coordinator and Tenured Associate Professor of Communication


If you’ve taught for any length of time, you can probably remember a time when barely anyone knew what dual enrollment was. High school students taking college courses while still enrolled in high school? Back then, it sounded almost preposterous. But, recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that one in three students took college courses for credit while they were enrolled in high school. (Find a state-by-state comparison of entering community college students in dual enrollment.)

If this statistic shocks you, know that most DE students never step foot on campus. In fact, an overwhelming majority of students take college classes at their own high school. Just under one in five attend classes at a local college campus. The other thing you should know is that many of these students don’t advertise their presence. That wonderful student sitting quietly in the back of the room? They just might be a dual enrollment student.

In this article, I share what I have learned after more than a decade of teaching these students. I will highlight some important things to know to make teaching DE more successful for both the student and instructor.

Dual Enrollment Students are Prepared, but Inexperienced

Ask anyone who has ever had the pleasure of teaching dual enrollment, and chances are they will gush about these students. They always seem to come prepared, participate actively and complete their work on time. For the most part, DE students are great to have in the classroom.

There are important differences, however, between a dual enrollment student and a seasoned college student. Typical dual enrollment students may come to the classroom with skills, but be unaware of major differences between high school and college. A joint student, instructor and institution initiative at the University of Waterloo estimated there are 50 major differences between high school and college. One major difference is that, unlike high school teachers, college faculty don’t adjust workloads to account for holidays. An inexperienced college student may be shocked to discover that because they didn’t plan, they will need to work through Thanksgiving break.

Another major difference is that high school students expect warning notifications from faculty if their grades are in peril. Unless they hear otherwise, they will assume that they are performing well in all courses. This assumption can get students into hot water. Per Trish Allen, coordinator of the Teaching and Learning Center at Cape Cod Community College, “No warning does NOT mean a student isn’t in trouble.” Many institutions have useful technological tools to assist students at risk, but these tools are relatively new and not yet widely deployed.

On the other end of the spectrum, otherwise talented DE students may lack confidence in their own work. Some of my more exceptional students suffer from impostor syndrome simply because they are younger than other students. I have found a little encouragement and praise can go a long way.

The Dual Enrollment Model is Successful, but There are Caveats

One of the reasons that DE programs are so popular is that they have a proven track record. Research found that high school students who take courses for college credit are more likely to attend and complete college within five years.

However, access remains a significant issue, with many barriers and disparities. The typical dual enrollment student is more likely to be White or Asian with one or more of their parents having earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Persistent eligibility and affordability barriers exist for some Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income students. Individuals from districts with a larger population of BIPOC students are less likely to participate in dual enrollment. When these opportunities do exist, there’s no guarantee that they are equitable. (See a simple state-by-state comparison broken down by race and gender.)

DE programs also vary widely in design and structure, resulting in different experiences. I taught individual students who were the only DE students enrolled in my regular day load. I led night courses with an equal enrollment of high school students and graduates. And in Spring 2020, I spearheaded day courses held remotely over Zoom where my class was entirely high school students.

My personal experience has been different in each of these scenarios. The reason: the climate within each of these courses has been different. I discovered that student outcomes are more successful when I can encourage students to feel like they are in college. This was surprisingly difficult to do in certain contexts, such as when I was teaching over Zoom to students enrolled at a local high school. Despite my teaching college material, some students continued to perceive themselves as being in high school, and their behaviors reflected that mindset.

By contrast, in classrooms where DE enrollment is limited to a handful of students, I find the experience to be more positive. I can teach my course as I have always done, and I am confident that students gain knowledge and awareness of what it is like to be in a college classroom.

Remember: These are High School Students Enrolled in College

It is important to remember that the DE student is both a college student and a high school student. As a college student, they are subject to the same rules, regulations and requirements, as well as the same rights and privileges as any other student. For underage students this can get tricky, such as when students want to participate in extracurricular travel and other after-school activities with classmates who are over 21. However, I’ve seen creative modifications to programming that can address these concerns without disruption.

But, they are also high school students who may still participate in clubs and activities at their high school. Often, I receive an email from a student asking permission to leave class early to attend an activity. In these cases, I allow the student to leave without consequence. However, I remind the students that they are responsible for fulfilling both the expectation of their activities and the requirements of my class.

Now that my oldest daughter is a tenth grader enrolling in her first college class this fall, the balancing act between high school and college student hits closer to home than ever. I have sympathy for new DE students and parents, as well as excitement about their upcoming opportunities. I hope that my experiences will help inform and inspire others to participate in this exciting and innovative learning model.

Fostering Confident Dual Enrollment Students

Help foster confident, successful dually enrolled students by learning more about the role confidence plays in students’ education. Download the Students Weigh In eBook on the role of confidence in their lives.