Dual Enrollment for High School Students Costs Community Colleges

More high school students are taking college credits as part of dual enrollment programs, but those programs are costly to community colleges. A new paper outlines potential solutions.
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  • Dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to take college courses, can be costly for community colleges, according to a new paper from the Community College Research Center.
  • Community colleges offer the majority of dual enrollment programs, often at a discount.
  • Despite those losses, dual enrollment can be a key source of growth for community colleges if structured properly, according to the paper.
  • Dual enrollment programs boost student success and can increase the number of students pursuing a postsecondary education, according to the paper.

More than a million students across the country take college credits as part of dual enrollment programs every year, but those programs aren’t always financially sustainable for community colleges.

Community colleges, which educate the majority of dual enrollment students nationwide, typically operate those programs at a net loss, according to a new working paper from Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

But the news isn’t all bad for community colleges, according to the paper: Dual enrollment can boost student success and can motivate students to continue their education after high school.

The paper focuses on community colleges that offer dual enrollment (DE) at discounted rates for high school students.

Overall revenue from dual enrollment programs cover between 72% and 85% of their costs at a "typical" community college, according to the paper, meaning that if 10% of all students at a community college are from dual enrollment programs, that college would see a net loss of between 1.5% and 2.8% of its overall budget.

But the average cost of dual enrollment programs decreases with the number of students enrolled, according to the paper, and those programs also tend to create relatively high student success rates, leading to potential ways for community colleges to overcome program losses.

"Under a range of plausible scenarios there are sufficient efficiency gains such that dual enrollment may be financially sustainable even for community colleges that offer DE at a discount," the paper reads. "By expanding DE enrollments, having DE students progress quickly and successfully, and encouraging more DE students to enroll at their college after completing high school, community colleges can produce efficiency gains that better ensure financial sustainability."

Community college funding sources vary widely between states, with most schools relying on both tuition and government funding to keep their doors open.

Community colleges "have increasingly relied on tuition funding" rather than public subsidies in recent years, according to the paper, and revenue from dual enrollment can be "significantly lower" than community college typical programs.

"Irrespective of where the revenue is coming from, in many cases colleges offer DE students a discounted tuition compared to that charged to 'regular' post-high school students; these colleges often forego 30%–50% of their usual tuition revenues," the report reads. "To offset this loss, colleges receive funds from K-12 schools/districts; but these funds may not fully cover costs."

Costs for dual enrollment programs include more than just instruction, according to the paper. Many community colleges also provide advising and support for high school students, and they take on other additional costs to implement the programs like information technology (IT) and course infrastructure.

Dual enrollment accounts for a substantial percentage of community college students as the overall number of students has been on the decline.

BestColleges previously reported that enrollment at community colleges has declined by more than 20% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, although some career-focused programs saw significant rebounds in early 2022.

Community colleges serve as key access points to higher education, BestColleges previously reported, particularly for historically underserved students, including adult learners, people of color, and students from low-income households.

Colleges need to focus on growing the number of students in dual enrollment programs to ensure sustainability, according to the paper. The authors recommend increasing outreach to underserved communities and high schools and focusing on recruiting dual enrollment students to finish their education.