Dual Credit: Is It Right for You?
By Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D.
Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness
In addition to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Project Lead the Way, states across the country have created additional ways secondary students can earn credits toward postsecondary. Students now have a range of dual credit programs which have many similarities, but often have different regulations and aims. For example, Washington has Running Start, while Ohio offers College Credit Plus, while Minnesota has created Postsecondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO.
I recently interviewed Scott Coenen, who is the Director of Pre-College Programs at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. He was kind enough to answer questions students and their families may have about dual credit. Specifically, I asked him why students choose dual credit programs, where students can enroll in them, what the rules tend to be, what the pros and cons are for the students who select them, and what advice he has for students considering them. His answers were instructive and can help students and their families know if such options might be appealing to them.
Who takes dual credit courses and where do they enroll?
Mr. Coenen explained that dual credit enrollment offers students the chance to complete college courses–both online and in person– for credit while they are still secondary students. Public, private, and homeschooled students are eligible, but dual credit courses are generally only open to students during the latter portion of their high school career. Each participating college and university sets their own requirements for enrollment in such courses and programs. For example, while some programs admit sophomores, Mr. Coenen indicated that PSEO at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities only admits juniors and seniors.
Students must meet the eligibility requirements, such as GPA, and abide by participation limits outlined by each postsecondary institution. There are many types of postsecondary institutions that offer dual credit, and Mr. Coenen said, “It varies by state, but in Minnesota, students can enroll at participating public and private universities, trade schools, and community and technical colleges.” Typically, students may take dual credit courses on a full or part-time basis.
Why do students enroll in dual credit programs?
Mr. Coenen stated that in the PSEO program, “Anyone who wants to experience a college level course and to become part of the university and experience what it is like to be a university student can enroll, as long as they meet the admission requirements.” He added “This requires the student to “become a U of M student. They have to learn our registration system. They register on their own. They have to know about our policies. They might have to go to the bookstore and [obtain] their books. They might have to use tutoring services. They really do get to experience life on campus, which can be exciting but can also be a consideration for students if they want that. For the most part it’s students that are really driven to want to experience that college level course.”
I asked Mr. Coenen if he perceived that families push students to enroll in dual credit. He said he does not see that, and in fact, he finds that the students are highly self-motivated. I next asked if students often graduate from postsecondary early as a result of engaging in dual credit courses. He stated, “We don’t have a lot of good data about our students graduating early. What I do know is that by doing [dual credit] it allows for more flexibility in your undergrad experience. You might be able to graduate a semester or two early. For a lot of students, it allows them to do a double major. They can add a minor. This allows them to study abroad for a semester without delaying their graduation for more than four years. It allows them to breathe a little bit in their academics if they are choosing a hard STEM major and they don’t have to take as arduous a semester each term because they have some flexibility.”
What are the pros of taking dual credit classes?
Beyond earning college credit and experiencing life on a college campus, there are many great benefits of dual enrollment. For example, states often cover the cost of books and fees for students. Students can still participate in extracurricular activities at their high school. Students have access to courses and topics they otherwise could not yet study. For instance, Mr. Coenen added that “The University of Minnesota campus is really unique in the sense that we offer so many courses. We have such a diversity of courses and ways of knowing the world, and [some of] our languages are only available on the Twin Cities campus. We have Swedish. We have Russian. We have Somali. We have Dakota. We have a plethora of courses that students can’t access in high school.”
Mr. Coenen also suggested that dual credit has some distinct advantages over AP or IB, because “students get the grade they get in the class. It’s not dependent on a score on the AP or IB exam . . . . You know what kind of college credit you are getting awarded. For a lot of students, it’s really important because many say, ‘I’m not good on those standardized exams.’ There is a lot of pressure and anxiety surrounding them and this grade and credit is a testament to all the hard work over 16 weeks, not an eight hour exam.”
What are the cons of taking dual credit classes?
Taking college classes can be a big step up for secondary students, and the choice to attend a postsecondary institution comes with additional responsibility. Students opting for dual enrollment need to manage the two separate worlds of being teenagers but also earning college credit. That may mean that students need to commute to a college campus on their own, or take public transportation to get to classes, for instance.
Instructors, moreover, are expecting to teach adults, or at least 18 year-olds, and dual credit students are treated no differently. Mr. Coenen stated, “[Instructors] don’t care if you’ve got band practice or you are running back to a track meet. That is not an excused absence. There can be conflicts with the students’ reality back at their high school.”
In addition, learning is more independent at a college level, and Mr. Coenen pointed out that the onus students undertake for their own learning is what some students love about dual credit. He said, “They want to be able to learn, read, and take notes on their own time.
Mr. Coenen added that students will not find the built in level of support students are used to in secondary settings. “If you never show up for class your instructor might not reach out to you. You are choosing not to come.” He indicated that his PSEO program does offer support for students, and they have assigned PSEO advisors in our program, which may be unique among dual credit programs. The support kicks in, however, if students reach out to them, advocating for themselves. He added, “That’s really challenging for parents. They think we are this intertwined web.”
Another big concern is that students may not fully realize that their dual credit grades become a permanent part of their college transcript. Mr. Coenen said, “Most colleges around the country are part of a national clearinghouse so they know that you went somewhere. You can’t just not report it. Admissions offices are part of the national clearinghouse. Even if you don’t do well you can’t just ignore it. Down the road if you are bound for medical or graduate school, you have to report all the courses you have taken and your grades. So [the grades you earn in dual credit classes] can have long lasting impacts on your academics.”
What advice might students need before enrolling in dual credit courses?
Mr. Coenen suggested that students move ahead in dual credit programs cautiously. “Take baby steps. If you do well, add more courses to your next semester. But experience what is expected of you and feel good about how the university systems are working before you take too much on for yourself.” He added that students should consider the following questions before enrolling in dual credit programs:
- How much do you want to leave your high school comfort zone?
- Is taking college courses on a college campus what you want and does this make sense for your academic goals?
- Do you have time to dedicate to courses and the experience?
Mr. Coenen mentioned that some students feel they can’t do the college level courses but said, “If you had successful high school courses, you are likely to do well. Believe in yourself. Use the support resources at the school to be successful. Talk to advisors. If you are worried about an assignment, talk to the instructors. You deserve that support. For many students, especially First Generation college students–and I was one–just know that you can do this!”
It is also wise for secondary students to carefully consider the postsecondary institution they choose. Mr. Coenen encouraged students to consider all of the different postsecondary options, not just four-your colleges, saying, “For example community colleges have great programs and courses, and they have a lot of introductory options. They have introduction to business, and they have trades and technical courses. They are great for exploring majors where [universities] have very distinct academic paths and it is assumed that students know what those paths are very early.”
An array of dual credit programs is available for secondary students across the country. They come with plentiful opportunities but also numerous considerations and increased responsibility. If you know a student who is considering enrolling in dual credit classes, please share this information with them.
About the Author
Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness™ at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. Ramp-Up is a college and career ready curriculum for grades 6 - 12 that strives to make sure all students have an equitable opportunity to achieve social and economic mobility through higher education—whether it be at a two or four-year college, a trade school, or an apprenticeship.