Dual-credit programs, which allow high-school students to take college-level courses, have a lot of appeal. But who are they helping?

Ideally, the courses, such as Advanced Placement or Running Start, expose and prepare students for the rigor of college-level coursework. If the students pass the class or score high enough on an exam, they can earn college credit and save money on tuition in the future. They could also graduate from college sooner.

Despite the goal of expanding access to college for all students, a new report from the state superintendent’s office suggests that’s not happening for families who can’t afford dual-credit programs now — let alone college tuition down the road. And that’s prompted state schools chief Chris Reykdal to float a bill that would make dual-credit coursework free for every student in Washington by 2023.

Students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common barometer for family poverty, were about half as likely to participate in dual-credit than their peers, Reykdal noted.

“There’s something about financial resources that’s causing a financial barrier, but we think we can eliminate that,” he added.

According to the new report, only about 1 in 4 high schoolers who qualified for subsidized meals took a dual-credit class this year. That’s up from about 19% in 2015, but still well below a participation rate of 43% among students who don’t come from low-income families.

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The state superintendent’s office found similar gaps for most students of color, English learners, homeless and migrant students and students with disabilities.

“The data is clear: Some students are more likely to have access to dual-credit options than others,” the report reads.

In Washington, high schoolers can take two types of dual-credit programs: Exam-based programs, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which require students to take a test at the end of the course and potentially earn college credit with a high enough score; or concurrent enrollment, with students earning both high-school and college credit when they complete a college-level class.

Each program, however, comes with costs and fees that students and their families must pay out of pocket. In total, Reykdal’s office estimates families paid nearly $59 million for their students to participate in dual-credit programs.

The state tallied that number in response to House Bill 1109, which tasked Reykdal’s office with studying how Washington can make dual enrollment cost-free to students. The only catch? Lawmakers don’t want to fork over any new money to cover the $59 million tab.

“We’re not going to ask for more money for this,” Reykdal said.

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Instead, during next year’s legislative session, his office will lobby for a bill to require school districts, colleges and universities to fully cover the cost of dual credit for students and their families by 2023.

The proposal comes at a time when Washington has invested much more in expanding access to college for all students.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into a law a sweeping higher-education bill that will cut the cost of tuition — or make it free — for low- and median-income students. It’s expected to reach up to 110,000 students. And in Seattle, seniors at any public high school have until Feb. 15 to apply for free tuition at three of the city’s community colleges.

Virginia Barry, policy and government affairs manager for the education-advocacy group Stand for Children, said she hasn’t heard much resistance to Reykdal’s new proposal so far. And she noted some school districts already make dual-credit free for all students.

“They just cover the costs. They just do it,” Barry said.

Still, she made a distinction between offering cost-free courses to any student who wants it and having enough adults working in schools to help students navigate those programs. That’s why, in the upcoming January legislative session, her organization will push to make sure there are more counselors for each student.

Stand for Children also supports creating a dedicated pot of money that school districts can only spend on counselors — instead of diverting the state funds elsewhere — and requiring counselors to spend at least 80% of their time working directly with students.

“Other states have laws on the books with more restrictions around specific activities that school counselors can do,” Barry said. “That’s a really great way to provide more time spent with students.”