The Shifting Role of Gatekeeping

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

May 01, 2023

A new paradigm emerges as dual enrollment for high school students moves from equity barrier to equity builder
Woman at podium
Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, says the number of high school students enrolled in college classes has nearly doubled since 2011. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOUTH TEXAS COLLEGE

Programs that allow high school students early access to college courses in high school — known as dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, dual credit and early college — are popular, prevalent and growing. The field has seen tremendous growth over the past decade as federal and state policymakers have increasingly expanded their recognition and support of this important learning initiative.

With research pointing to demonstrated benefits such as higher high school graduation rates, increased college matriculation rates, improved performance in college and higher rates of post-secondary degree attainment, dual enrollment access and participation have good reason to be trending upward.

Between 2011 and 2021, the number of high school students under age 18 enrolled in college courses nearly doubled, escalating from 820,000 to 1.5 million, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Data System.

Course-Taking Trends

Dual and concurrent enrollment programs date back to at least the 1950s. They have grown from a niche program available to a select few high school students to becoming widely available across the country. Dual enrollment also is an emerging equity strategy.

A 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Education on dual enrollment growth indicated 34 percent of students take one or more college courses while in high school. In some states, the postsecondary course-taking rate exceeds the national average by 20 percent or more. Notably, in Indiana, Iowa and Idaho, at least 55 percent of high school graduates have completed a college class.

Between 70 and 75 percent of dual enrollment occurs through community colleges, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. In the center’s analysis of fall 2021 data, the latest available from the federal government, roughly one in five high school students was dually enrolled in a community college, continuing a dramatic trajectory over the past two decades.

About 80 percent of dually enrolled students nationally take their college courses at their own school and an additional 6 percent take the courses at a school other than their home high school, such as a career center or academy. The overwhelming majority of dually enrolled students are taking their college courses at their high school either from a high school instructor who meets the college’s adjunct criteria or from college faculty teaching on the high school campus.

Variable Access

At the same time, though, reports from the U.S. Department of Education indicate minorities, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and first-generation college students, English language learners and students with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in the dual enrollment programs. Despite more than a million high school students enrolling annually, dual enrollment access and participation can vary widely, even within a state or school district.

The national data show student access and participation is uneven, perpetuating existing inequities in who benefits from postsecondary education. Unfortunately, entrenched practices, policies and mindsets have systematically impeded more equitable access for students.

Extending the benefits of dual enrollment is possible and is happening in many school communities. From my view as the head of the only national organization focused solely on supporting and advancing quality dual enrollment programs in all forms and names, I have connected with hundreds of programs and thousands of educators, and it is clear there is a paradigm shift underway in the field. Dual enrollment is moving from an equity barrier to an equity builder with the potential to increase college access and success for a much more diverse group of students.

While national reporting lags, we are seeing indications of a shift in who is offered the opportunity to enroll in these programs. The transformation is being driven by the interplay of research and practice.

Broadening Participation

In their early form, dual enrollment programs basically were designed to engage those already likely to attend and succeed in college. These programs were touted as a way to mitigate “senioritis” by offering high school seniors novel, rigorous course options.

Faded copies of early publications documenting programs from the late 1950s describe dual enrollment as designed for “superior students.” College gatekeeping metrics were applied to assess who was “superior” and decide who was in and who was out. Today, you can see the echoes of this history in many programs in participation requirements such as GPA or class rank, standardized test score cutoffs, the type of courses students are permitted to take and which students are invited to learn about dual enrollment opportunities at their high schools.

I encountered the echoes of this history early in my career as a dual enrollment program coordinator at Gallatin College of Montana State University. Well-intentioned requirements served a gatekeeping role that prevented students who were otherwise motivated, engaged and likely to be successful from participating in dual enrollment.

New to the job, I eagerly dug into the peer-reviewed research to better understand what we know about dual enrollment, what made it work and for whom it worked. Study after study revealed the positive impact of these programs on a wide range of students, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

I found research papers calling for dual enrollment to be more inclusive, research showing increased degree attainment for dual enrollment students from low-SES backgrounds, as well as increased college enrollment and degree completion rates for non-white students, first-generation students, lower academically performing students and students with disabilities. These were exactly the students whom colleges and universities were eager to find, engage and support in pursuit of a degree or credential.

While building the program at the college, I sought connection to the broader dual enrollment community, leading me to the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships where I found conferences, webinars, publications and networking opportunities and connections with other professionals doing this work.

Connections with colleagues across the nation helped me understand the complex factors at work that create disparities among those who have access and participate. The most inspiring programs were those that were driving students through a shared vision that prioritized equitable access and student success. These high school/college partnerships were innovative and opening the door wide for students.

School leaders recognized the role these programs could play in changing student lives, and they were passionate about doing whatever it took to expand opportunities to all students. All their work started with partnership and a shared vision. The rest was just working out the details.

Mutual Understanding

For my program in Montana, the first step was meeting with each of our high school/district partners to discuss what we mutually hoped to accomplish. I shared current research and practice showing the range of students who benefit from dual enrollment. Defining our shared goals and discussing ways to measure progress created a foundation from which to build.

While this may seem an elementary approach, it is not uncommon for high schools and colleges to partner on these programs because it is an expectation or a requirement, so refocusing the work on the benefits to students was an important step.

Identifying who is, should be and could be participating in dual enrollment is deeply entwined with equity conversations. An early activity explored our program data so we could identify who was participating as a starting point for assessing what had to change. This led to a cascade of questions: How many students were coming to campus, how many online, how many at the high school? How closely did the demographics of students participating in our program match the demographics of our partner school districts? Were participation gaps based on income, race/ethnicity, course location or type? Why did participation gaps exist, and what outreach or program changes might close them?

The early discussions launched various new projects. We built a flow chart to outline what students needed to do to participate in a dual enrollment class, from recruitment in feeder classes to the enrollment and fee payment process. We used focus groups with students and families to tease out factors that positively and negatively affect participation and determined what was within the control of the high school to address.

Shared focus and goals built shared accountability and mutual respect and our partnerships blossomed from there. n

Amy Williams is executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships based in Chapel Hill, N.C. 

Our School District Adopts the Mindset of an Usher


Brandon Baskett

Qualified students too regularly miss out on dual enrollment learning options if educators don’t invite them in, like an usher, to the opportunity. Instead, decision makers function as a gatekeeper with a fixed mindset of who should be included.

Dual enrollment gives qualified high school students a chance to begin their ascent into higher education. To qualify, students traditionally have faced rigid admissions criteria: grade point averages, standardized test scores and course prerequisites for enrolling in a college or university class.

Based on our experiences in Lexington County School District One in South Carolina, here are three ways district and school-level leaders can adopt an usher’s mindset to advance dual enrollment programming:

Identify, select and train dedicated personnel to lead the dual enrollment program.

Build and use data reports to identify students who qualify for dual enrollment courses.

Establish a direct-to-consumer communication approach to invite students to apply for dual enrollment.

Dedicated Personnel

School districts will improve outcomes in dual enrollment programming by designating a district-level point of contact. The designated staff member serves as the primary facilitator and liaison between the district’s dual enrollment partners and high schools. Because the process can be complex, especially as student enrollment increases, the staff member in charge must thoroughly understand the process, which includes course offerings, recruitment, applications, registration, progress monitoring and transcripts.

I serve in this capacity in my school district, where about 900 high school students will take at least one postsecondary course in 2022-23 at Midlands Technical College, Piedmont Technical College or the University of South Carolina Sumter. Three years ago, the number of enrollees was 518.

As a member of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, I can network with and learn from other professionals in similar roles across the country. We have since established a state chapter, South Carolina Alliance of Dual Enrollment Partnerships, to advance dual enrollment throughout the state.

Data-informed Practices

One strategy for identifying qualified students is for leaders to use relevant student data such as grade point averages, standardized test scores and previous attempts at rigorous courses.

A better decision-making process comes from building an accessible and sustainable system that tracks multiple measures of student data. This prevents bias from sabotaging the recruitment process.

Some gatekeepers believe dual enrollment is only for those students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. The bias toward class rank leads them to predetermine who belongs in postsecondary courses. An usher, by contrast, relies on multiple measures of data to identify and recruit qualified candidates.

Tiered Communication

Finally, based on experience, our district recommends a direct-to-consumer approach to promote dual enrollment opportunities to students, parents, teachers, school counselors and building administrators. This means that school district staff and the postsecondary partners collaborate on communication about how the programs work.

We never assume that an e-mail, newsletter, flyer, phone call, text message or social media post by itself will reach an entire intended audience. The school district intentionally sends personalized e-mails. We conduct dual enrollment application days at the high schools and host webinars and parent nights to promote dual enrollment.

Consider adding a dedicated page about dual enrollment classes on each school’s website and the district’s website. We requested feedback from our high schools, leading us to design a comprehensive Google Site, which curates information from our partners for students and parents. Communication is most effective when it is accessible and easily understood by the masses, so we’ve adjusted accordingly.

Brandon Baskett is dean for higher education services in Lexington County School District One in Lexington, S.C. @BrandonBaskett

College in the School Changes Students’ Lives


Wade McKittrick holding AASA certificate
Wade McKittrick, superintendent in Montevideo, Minn., says offering college courses in his high school delivers rigorous instruction to all students. PHOTO COURTESY OF WADE MCKITTRICK

Every educator’s dream is to have such a dramatic impact on students that it alters the students’ future for the better.

In the Minnesota community of Montevideo, two hours west of Minneapolis, our school district’s staff shares this dream, using our own College in the School program to do just that. The district’s strategic plan, T-Hawk 25, includes a goal for Montevideo High School students to earn, on average, a minimum of 12 college credits prior to graduation, thus creating a strong foundation for career and college readiness.

College in the School, under the guidance of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, is a cost-friendly partnership between higher education and school districts that allows qualified high school teachers to instruct college courses in their school at no cost to high school students. Aggressively seeking opportunities through this program at Montevideo High School is impacting a wide range of students, serving as a field-leveling experience while providing equity in a rigorous learning program.

In 2022-23, 107 of our 276 students in grades 10-12 are taking at least one of the 11 university courses currently offered in Montevideo.

Rigor and Relationships

How does College in the School serve as an equity builder? By offering these courses at our high school we:

 Provide rigorous coursework opportunities for all students;

Create a safe environment for students to take an academic risk knowing the courses are taught by their high school teachers who have a relationship with them, know their needs and are invested in their success;

 Capitalize on the support network established inside our high school to increase success in college-level courses;

 Understand the importance of the high school experience and can adjust timelines to better work with student life (homecoming, prom, state exams);

Empower students by helping them navigate the challenges and expectations of taking college courses;

Seek out students who may not see themselves as capable of taking college-level courses; and

Partner with local industry to provide practical experiences alongside rigorous coursework.

A Dream Opportunity

Through the support, relationships and guidance provided through College in the School, historically underrepresented students of color, socio-economic status and special needs are breaking through barriers to tackle college coursework. Students who view themselves as capable of college-level work but who fear off-campus or online courses will cause them to miss out on “school life” can capitalize on the accessibility and integration of this program.

College in the School provides a vehicle for our district’s educators to have such a dramatic impact on students, regardless of status, that it alters their future for the better. That is an educator’s dream.

Wade McKittrick is superintendent of Montevideo Independent School District 129 in Montevideo, Minn. @WadeMckittrick


Amy Williams

Executive Director

National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships

Additional Resources

The work of shifting perceptions and practice starts with getting educated and connected. You can find a variety of useful resources to guide and support your work in the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships’ Resource Center. We curate a searchable database of guides, best practices, research spotlights, issue briefs and webinars focused on practice and policy.

It also can be helpful to connect with others doing the work in your locality. Use our member directory to find education professionals in your region working in dual enrollment. You also can connect with one of NACEP’s affiliated chapters to tap into in-person and virtual meetings, professional development and resource sharing at the state and regional level.