WASHINGTON — The Education Department is gathering data from a recent experiment that lets high school students enrolled in college courses pay for them using federal grants, but higher education experts worry that unresolved design flaws could undermine the initiative.
This month, the department informed more than two dozen colleges participating in the experiment that it will wrap up at the close of the 2021-2022 financial aid cycle on June 30, 2022. The federal agency plans to evaluate the long-term outcomes of students in the program and develop policy recommendations.
The decision comes five years after the Obama administration offered about $20 million in Pell grants to as many as 10,000 high school students taking dual-enrollment courses. The administration wanted to give students from low-income households, who are underrepresented in early college programs, a chance to earn credits toward a degree and save money on higher education.
There were concerns about the initiative from the outset.
Giving students early access to Pell meant drawing down finite dollars, as the grants can only be used for 12 semesters. Some higher-education experts worried there were no plans for a full evaluation or data collection beyond tracking the aid provided. Others questioned the quality of the courses, the transferability of the credits and the selection of schools in states that already poured money into early college programs.
“All of this work is rife with nuance because these programs differ from state to state and sometimes district to district,” said Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). “You have to get in the weeds to look at the best approach for federal support, but this [experiment] was more one-size-fits-all. And that could impact the results.”
Dual-credit programs have grown at an unprecedented rate and were one of the few bright spots in college enrollment during the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank, tracked 23 states in 2019 alone that enacted legislation to expand access to such programs. Still, funding is uneven across the country.
There are at least 27 states where high school students pay no tuition for college courses, and several others, including Maryland, where the tuition is discounted. Some of the colleges participating in the federal experiment are located in states that foot a significant portion of the bill for dual-credit programs. Williams said a more thoughtful design could have identified schools where minimal or no state funding existed, to test the impact of filling the void.
The consequences of the department’s choices are evident in the outcomes at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland. Because the state covers full tuition for high-school students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, very few tapped Pell to attend Hagerstown’s programs, said the college president, James Klauber.
“When we advised those students of all of the options, many elected not to use Pell, wanting to hold onto the grants for the rest of their college career,” Klauber said. “But for those students whose parents are working poor — earning too much for some help but not enough to pay tuition — this was a great benefit.”
Klauber estimates that between 5 and 8 percent of the roughly 1,000 high-school students who enrolled annually in the school’s dual-credit programs since 2016 relied on Pell to pay their way. Still, federal support could become irrelevant once Maryland institutes the Kirwan Commission’s plan to expand free access to dual enrollment in the coming years.
Although the experiment ran longer than the designated three years, Williams of NACEP had hoped the Education Department would have made adjustments before ending it. Williams, whose organization accredits dual-enrollment programs, said she applauds the department’s efforts to increase access and has heard from schools that credit the experiment with creating a path to serve more students.
One of those schools is Owensboro Community and Technical College in Kentucky, which has run early college programs for almost 20 years. The college had set out to help teenagers complete an associate degree by the time they graduated from high school. While the state covers two college courses for high-schoolers and discounts tuition, the cost of the remaining classes proved prohibitive for some, said Stacy Edds-Ellis, dean of academic affairs at Owensboro.
“We didn’t want this to be elitist,” she said. “The Pell experiment opened a door for so many students to gain access to rigorous classes and have the same opportunities as their peers.”
Whereas Owensboro counted 56 high school students in its dual-enrollment courses in 2016, the community college is welcoming 239 this academic year. Over the course of the experiment, about three-quarters of high school students receiving Pell grants graduated with an associate’s. By comparison, roughly 41% of Owensboro’s full-time college students with Pell grants graduate within three years, Edds-Ellis said.
Both the graduation success and uptick in enrollment are rooted in the partnership the community college has with the local high school system, said Trey Pippin, college and career readiness coach at Daviess County High School in Owensboro. He said they team up on counseling students about utilizing federal and state resources, offering guidance throughout the process.
“We’ve made huge strides in our recruitment, retention and success of our low-income students,” said Pippin, who attended a dual-enrollment program at Owensboro as a teenager. “Pell has really been an important instrument for us to give families an idea of how they can save money right now and pave the way to students attaining higher education.”
All the same, Edds-Ellis said that if the federal government continues to allow high-schoolers to access Pell, policymakers must add another semester of eligibility and be more intentional about the use of funds.
“There needs to be an endgame … some type of credential,” Edds-Ellis said. “It shouldn’t be meant for people to try it out to see if they like it; there has to be a goal. Success is possible with partners at the table, a clear intentional path and student support.”
Experimental sites administered by the Federal Student Aid office are supposed to help in assessing the value of policy ideas, but have been criticized for poor execution.
“These programs have just been a waiver from statutory requirements … and it’s a huge missed opportunity,” said Amy Laitinen, director of higher education within the education policy program at New America, a liberal think tank. “There is a lot of potential for it to be helpful with dual enrollment, but they have to be designed to ask and answer a particular question.”
The Education Department said it expects to submit a report to Congress about the dual-enrollment experiment before the end of this year. Lawmakers in both parties have introduced or endorsed legislation authorizing new grants programs to establish or scale up concurrent enrollment, but those bills have stalled.
The Biden administration has expressed interest in expanding dual-enrollment programs, especially for students from lower-income households. Biden has proposed investing $10 billion over 10 years in career and technical education and career pathways, which includes dual-credit programs.