The dual-credit dilemma

In conversations about the future of higher education, dual credit elicits a wide range of opinions. Considered a cure-all by some and a cop-out by others, dual credit offers students the opportunity to concurrently fulfill high school and university requirements in a single course. While classes can meet at higher education campuses, they are increasingly being offered at and taught in high school classrooms by teachers who are certified by a credit-giving institution instead of full-fledged professors.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board released one of its most comprehensive reports on dual credit in December. The purpose of the report is to fulfill the requirements of the General Appropriations Act, better known as “Rider 33,” passed by the state Legislature last year, which directed the board to find “the most efficient and effective delivery of dual-credit courses to students.”

Since fall 2008, every school district in the state is required to provide a path for students to earn a minimum of 12 hours of college credit while still in high school. The state-subsidized costs of dual-credit courses make them an attractive option for college-bound high school students. The board’s report highlights the popularity of dual-credit courses, as the number of students enrolled jumped from 11,921 in fall 1999 to 90,364 in fall 2010.

The report backs the assumption that students taking dual-credit courses are more likely to attend college and graduate faster than students who do not take dual-credit courses. Dual credit also encourages high schools, junior colleges and universities to collaborate on curricular issues, which helps strengthen the higher education pipeline.

But the report also calls for the board to “continue to support efforts to assure rigor and consistency in dual-credit courses,” an issue that plagues a system that operates on a great deal of faith.

For starters, although teachers require certification from the institution offering the college credit, there is very little monitoring after that point. And unlike other paths to obtain college credit in high school, such as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, dual-credit courses have no standardized end-of-year competency exam — even though they may offer the same amount of college credit. Moreover, while Texas public universities are obligated by law to accept most forms of dual credit, private universities increasingly do not.

Secondly, the report highlights that only about 5 percent of dual-credit enrollment is offered through 4-year universities, with UT and Texas A&M among the non-participants. With reputation being a major concern of these 4-year universities, the state’s top public institutions could play a significant role in promoting quality and rigor in dual-credit programs to complement the goal of accessibility that underlies the community college tradition. Instead, their lack of involvement only reinforces the perception of the disengaged public university.

But the increasing popularity and accessibility of dual credit has major implications for the state’s public universities that go well beyond the question of quality. If a high school student can receive six credits of English at a cheaper price near his or her home while using textbooks provided for free by his or her school district, then what is the point of his or her taking the course in college?

UT President William Powers Jr. referred to this dilemma as one of higher education’s “existential questions” during the Faculty Council meeting last week. As the public embraces these low-cost opportunities, UT and its public university counterparts across the country have the burden of reminding people that higher education goes beyond a transfer of content to embrace an exchange of concept.

Dual credit provides opportunities for students across the state. But the current debate surrounding it defines education by dollars, cents and credit hours. That’s a debate that UT will not win.