COVID: A Threat or Opportunity for Dual Enrollment and Early College Programs?

Facing uncertainty about the impact of COVID-19 on the future of higher education, the bridge from high school to postsecondary education has become more precarious. This is particularly true for first-generation college students, students of color, and low-income students. These students were already less likely to attend postsecondary and more likely to leave without a degree. As both secondary and postsecondary institutions transitioned to remote learning, these students faced the greatest barriers in getting and staying connected to higher education.

For many underrepresented students, their connection to postsecondary education is not strong enough to withstand the impact of COVID-19. They will either withdraw, or they will never even enroll, unless we implement policies to strengthen their connection.

The threat is that many K-12 and public higher education agencies are facing deep budget cuts in FY21 and FY22. If they take the approach of focusing on “core” activities or only requirements tied to state accountability systems, it is possible that they will view dual enrollment as an “extra” to be cut during difficult times.

However, this is an opportunity for states to make progress toward their long-term priorities: This is the moment for states to recognize that dual enrollment programming—specifically that which targets underrepresented students—moves them more directly toward their college attainment goals.

Thinking bigger, this could be the moment for forward-looking state education agencies and their higher education counterparts to implement fundamental changes and redesign the transition from secondary to postsecondary education.Readiness for postsecondary success means shortening the path to relevant, credit-bearing courses. Re-thinking the high school experience to focus on post-secondary readiness was already a priority prior to COVID-19, and now this is more urgent, and more obvious, than ever. Colleges are already developing and expanding co-requisite courses in order to reduce dependence on developmental education.  But, more explicit connections to college courses are needed at the high school level.

Expanding dual enrollment opportunities and immersive early college programs to intentionally target our most underrepresented students will have the biggest net impact on postsecondary matriculation rates. If postsecondary readiness is an expected outcome of K-12 education, then these priorities must be built into the high school funding model—not treated like supplemental extras afforded only students who “opt-in” or districts that have additional resources.

Academic Readiness: Only Half the Battle
While academic readiness is crucial, it is only half of the challenge. For students to persist in postsecondary education, they must have a sense of belonging. For many students, that sense is buoyed by community and peer relationships. However, remote instruction strips away many of the social interactions from education. Education in the wake of COVID-19 will need to ameliorate that loss, in part, by more explicit community-building and increasing personalized relationships between staff and students.

Early college and college-bridge programs, especially culturally specific programs and those that begin during the second and third years of high school, are very effective for ensuring that students from underrepresented populations feel they belong on campus. While on-campus experiences will continue to be limited in the near-term, these efforts merit broad expansion.

Personalized coaching relationships with students make them more resilient, more persistent, and more likely to graduate. Programs serving underrepresented students have long understood that one-on-one relationships are crucial. Anticipating continued remote or hybrid instruction, high schools and colleges will need to scale personalized coaching to a wider student population.  Pairing coaching relationships and individualized communication with online instruction can dramatically increase engagement and foster academic momentum.

Expansion of programs that synthesize high school and college coursework and increasing students’ sense of belonging will help close the wide gap between high school and postsecondary education.

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