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Dual credit is growing & blurring the line between high school and higher ed

Students are sitting in a classroom with a teacher at the front giving a lesson.
College of DuPage
Students sitting at desks in a dual-credit course

In the past five years, the number of Illinois high school students taking dual credit courses has jumped from around 60,000 to 90,000.

Dual credit is where students take college-level courses at their high school, usually through a collaboration with a local community college. There’s also dual enrollment, where high students take college courses at a local college. Some students do both.

Lisa Haegele is the dual credit and dual enrollment manager at College of DuPage. She’s also the president of the Illinois Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, a state chapter of the only dual credit accrediting organization in the country.

At College of DuPage, they partner with around 40 different local high schools for dual credit.

She says it’s not new. And dual credit isn’t just growing, it’s evolving. It used to be much more geared towards career and technical education like welding or nursing.

“Recently, it's more so looking into the gen-ed courses for dual credit, mostly because that's what the high schools were interested in,” she said. “For the students who are able to take those courses and be done with English or math and be able to transfer those out.”

Even though dual credit participation is ballooning, it’s still not nearly as popular as the other big early college credit option: Advanced Placement.

Many districts, like Joliet Township, offer both. Some of its dual credit options are still career and tech. But now they offer a lot of general education dual credit too.

Dr. Karla Guseman is the superintendent. She says students can take dual credit Rhetoric 101 or AP English 4. They’re both weighted. They both fulfill the same college graduation requirement. So, which one do you take?

“Really, it is based on what is their goal?" she said. "Like if they plan to go to a school that's out of state, it might make more sense to take the AP class. If they know that they are planning on going to Joliet Junior College or another state university, we would probably say to take the dual credit class."

Guseman says it’s more hit-or-miss if out-of-state schools will accept dual credit.

Dual Credit can also somewhat sidestep an issue some have with Advanced Placement -- high-stakes testing. To earn college credit in AP, you typically must pass the exam at the end of the year. But If students just pass dual credit classes, usually with a C or higher, they get college credit.

However, testing is still crucial to dual credit. Students often have to take an “Accuplacer” entrance exam just to get enrolled. But Haegele says that’s changing too. At College of DuPage, they factor in multiple measures, like GPA.

Dual credit courses are also free at College of DuPage and cost just a few dollars at other schools. The AP exams cost nearly $100 each, and many students take multiple tests. But in Illinois, low-income students only have to pay $7 per exam.

Jason Klein says they both can save students money and it’s not that one is good, and one is bad. He’s Senior Director of Education Partnerships and Learning Solutions at Northern Illinois University.

He says there are a few big reasons why more schools offer AP than dual credit, but one stands out.

“The barrier to entry for teacher credentialing for AP is lower than the barrier to entry for teacher credentialing for dual credit,” he said.

Since dual credit is through a college, high school teachers who teach those classes must meet college-level credentials. They need a master’s degree or a certain number of credit hours -- just like college instructors.

Klein says that hurdle can significantly limit the number of courses schools can offer, especially in smaller districts.

“If I'm the only history teacher and I’m not credentialed, well, then I'm not offering dual credit,” said Klein. “But if we have 14 history teachers and two or three are credentialed, I can offer a bunch of dual credit classes to my seniors, for example.”

If a school has one teacher with a master’s degree and they teach biology -- dual credit biology, it is. Lisa Haegele refers to this phenomenon as “random acts of dual credit.”

It’s common when teachers retire, for schools to hire young, cheaper teachers who don’t have a master’s degree. Dual Credit has started to change that at schools like Vienna High School in southern Illinois. Superintendent Joshua Stafford says every year, a large percentage of students at Vienna walk across the podium at graduation with not only their high school diploma in hand, but also an associate degree -- thanks to relationships with three different local community colleges.

But, when a Vienna High School science teacher retired, Stafford was shocked that the school board suddenly wanted another teacher with a master’s degree.

“I'm like, 'wait a minute!'" said Stafford, "'24 months ago, you were telling me we couldn't hire people with master's degrees because they were too expensive. 24 months later, you're telling me that is the only option!'”

He says the students graduating with an associate degree are amazing. But, Stafford says, there’s an even bigger dual credit story at Vienna that doesn’t get nearly as much attention.

He says it’s also significantly reduced the number of Vienna graduates who’ve had to take non-credit remedial classes because they’re not ready for college-level work.

Even though those classes are not for credit, they still cost students money. He says getting them properly prepared is just another way students can save thousands of dollars through dual credit.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.