States be aware: Cost savings for dual enrollment elude state ledgers

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Who doesn’t love a bargain? That’s part of what I’ve heard state lawmakers in Idaho and Washington say they think they’re getting with dual enrollment policies that let students earn college credit in high school. Dual enrollment is first and foremost a means to promote persistence and success in college. But a secondary agenda for many is simply the cost piece: Dual enrollment reduces the cost of higher education.

The cost element has a natural appeal, given that public higher education is a big-ticket item for states (and families alike). If high schoolers can get a jump on college credits, state lawmakers figure the state will save big later when those same kids get to college and need fewer classes to gain a degree. But here’s the problem: Our recent cost analysis in three states reveals that dual enrollment yielded no state savings at all, though they did lower students’ direct costs for earning the same credit.

This suggests legislators may need to check their savings assumptions at the door.

To date, 47 states have laws or rules governing dual enrollment. Dual enrollment models typically involve some level of cooperation between institutions of higher education and high schools. The traditional model has high schoolers taking a college course on a college campus and the college receives some funding for those students.

Our analysis of incremental costs associated with providing college credit in high school in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio not only finds zero state savings for courses taken via dual enrollment when compared to the costs of taking those courses later in college. It also shows that in two of the three states, the public cost for a high school student to take a three-credit class via dual enrollment was actually higher than if the student waited to complete high school and took the same three-credit class once she got to college.

Figure 1: Incremental costs vary for a community college course taken via dual enrollment and direct enrollment

Incremental costs vary for a community college course taken via dual enrollment and direct enrollment

Why no savings? The interplay between details in a dual-enrollment program’s design and a state’s funding formulas matter. To know if the reality stands up to the rhetoric on public cost savings in any given state, policymakers need to pop the hood and do the math.

First, states need to take stock of all public spending on a student during the years of dual enrollment. Much of the extra public costs stem from state policies that wind up “double funding” students who are simultaneously counted as being in high school (and funded accordingly) while also being counted at the college (where they are subsidized with state support like any other public college student). States are effectively paying for high schoolers to be educated in two places at once. Some states, like Georgia and Ohio, then also cover the dual enrolled high schooler’s public college tuition and fees associated with the credits.

While doing this math, we found that it costs Ohio over twice as much for a high schooler to take a class at a community college via dual enrollment than for a student to simply complete high school and take the same class after graduation via direct enrollment in that same community college. In Georgia, the state costs for a dual enrollment course were 60 percent higher than if the student took the community college course via direct enrollment after completing high school.

In contrast, Florida’s costs are the same regardless of whether a student takes a college course at the public higher education institution when the student is still in high school or after the student graduates. Again, notice that in no model did the state actually save money on credits attained via dual enrollment.

In all three states studied, we found that it is the student who saves in dual enrollment since the programs foot some, or all, of the tuition bill at the public college or university. By taking the class early as part of dual enrollment, the state pays the tuition (or in Florida the district pays)–that’s a deal that isn’t available to the student if the student waits until after graduating high school. In Georgia and Ohio, that savings for the student translates to an added expense for the state.

The policymaker lesson here is program and funding design matter.

In Florida, the district pays the tuition (out of its high school funding) meaning that no additional costs are brought to the state. But in the other two states, the tuition is an additional cost borne by the state in a separate allocation on top of state funding for high school, thus effectively driving up state spending for any dual community college credits when taken via dual enrollment.

None of this means that dual enrollment is inherently a poor policy choice. And policymakers clearly have reasons to pursue dual enrollment—like boosting college attainment—beyond the hope of saving public dollars. A 2017 study in Illinois found degree completion results overall were much better for dual enrollment students than for their matched peers who were not dually enrolled. Similarly, a 2013 study showed that students who had earned college credit in high school were 10 percent more likely to finish college than those who hadn’t. Students whose parents never went to college benefited even more; they were 12 percent more likely to finish.

But as with any program, policymakers should assess what the public dollars buy in outcomes for the students involved. If the goal is to improve students’ chances of earning a degree and the programs deliver on that front, lawmakers may well decide that the investment in their costlier college credit in high school programs is worth it. But policymakers should be clear-eyed about what they are getting and what fiscal trade-offs are involved.

Rather than telling states “buyer beware,” we’re encouraging a “buyer be aware” approach: Some deals on college credit in high school may sound too good to be true. But only by digging in and doing the math will states know how good the deal really is.