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More high schoolers try this college savings strategy: It’s like getting two years free, says expert

Without the promise of broad-based student loan forgiveness, there’s another option for eliminating higher-education debt before it balloons.

Through dual enrollment, high school students can complete college-level coursework and even receive an associate’s degree by the time they graduate.

That can shave years off the cost of a bachelor’s degree, in some cases cutting the tab — not to mention the borrowing costs — in half.

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“It’s a very smart way to start your higher education,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“They’re basically getting two years of college for free.”

Dual enrollment is growing in popularity

More students are catching on, according to a recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which showed a 12.8% jump in dual enrollment since 2022.

At Post University’s High School Academy in Waterbury, Connecticut, the number of students enrolled has spiked since the program launched a little over five years ago. Students take a mix of high school- and college-level courses, shortening the time it takes to complete a high school diploma and one to two years of college coursework.

“For every class you can take in high school, that’s one less class you are financing down the road,” said Chad McGuire, director of Post’s High School Academy.

Not all students in dual enrollment programs graduate high school with an associate degree, but most finish with at least one year of college credit, which gives them the option to enter college as a transfer student.

At least 35 states have policies that guarantee that students with an associate degree can transfer to a four-year state school as a junior.

“Dual enrollment is not new,” McGuire said. “But there’s more effort to make it accessible.”

They’re basically getting two years of college for free.
Martha Parham
senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges

Unlike Advanced Placement, another program in which high school students take courses and exams that could earn them college credit, dual enrollment is a state-run program that often works in partnership with a local community college.

These programs are not restricted to high school students on a specific — and often accelerated — academic track, as many AP classes are.

In fact, many of the programs were initially geared toward underrepresented students who were unlikely to consider college.

Where dual enrollment falls short

Nearly two-thirds of community college dual enrollment students nationally were from low- or middle-income families, according to a 2017 study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

Of those students, 88% continued on to college after high school, and most earned a degree within six years.

However, to date, dual enrollment predominantly includes high-achieving, mainly white students who were likely already on the college track, according to new data from Columbia’s Community College Research Center.

While there is evidence that dual enrollment benefits students, students of color are underrepresented, the researchers said.

To reduce equity gaps, the authors suggest improved outreach to underserved students and families to increase awareness of dual enrollment and its effectiveness in increasing college-going and completion rates.

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