Is dual enrollment worth it for gifted children?

Dual enrollment programs are all the rage in education now. With dual enrollment, high school (and even middle school) students take college courses (most often community college courses) and receive both college credit and credit toward their high school diploma. In many cases, kids graduate with both a diploma and an Associate’s Degree.

Dual enrollment is an alternative to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs in high schools. It started off as an idea to keep high performing students in public schools rather than losing them to private schools or homeschooling. Now homeschooling lobbyists have fought to have the opportunity extended to homeschoolers as well.

What dual enrollment seems to offer is a way of skirting taking high-stakes tests for college credit. Instead, the kids are taking classes from people who themselves probably do not have a PhD and who likely pass everyone who is enrolled through the system.

The main difference to me – in terms of the actual quality of education that a child is receiving – is that with IB or AP, a student is getting a traditional liberal arts education rather than taking random classes alongside the stoners and teenage mothers in their town. I’m not saying this to look down on anyone who is trying to turn their life around by continuing their education. But let’s get real here. You are not talking about an even marginally competitive academic program. You are talking about programs that have historically been directed at individuals who have fallen through the cracks. That’s why the government is okay with putting a 6th grader in the room as well. AP and IB classes are probably far more competitive and stimulating academically.

I’ve met a number of homeschoolers who think their child is exceedingly special for participating in dual enrollment. There are social media groups devoted to pushing homeschooled children into dual enrollment programs at ever earlier ages, when the children would probably be better served by their parents investing in high-quality curriculum developed for gifted and talented kids that will genuinely prepare them for enrollment at a better university. It strikes me that is the quiet trade-off being made here. Their education is cheaper because it genuinely is worth less in the long run.

The number of kids in these programs has been growing exponentially, as state governments push dual enrollment as a way of getting a college degree without mountains of debt (in reality, the cost is usually pushed to state taxpayers – and you are a taxpayer):

In all 50 states, a growing number of high school students are taking what are known as dual-enrollment or dual-credit classes. They’re single classes that earn students both high school and college credit. Ten states now make it mandatory for districts to offer these classes.

And the number of students under 18 taking college courses has skyrocketed. It went from under 300,000 in 1995 to over 1 million in 2015. 

If over one million high school (and even middle school) students are doing this, does it lose its signaling power to colleges and universities (if it ever had it in the first place)?

Do elite colleges and universities even care if you have an Associate’s Degree, which is something no academic would put on their own curriculum vitae because it carries zero prestige?

“But dual enrollment demonstrates that your child can handle college-level work,” folks say. I’m not sure it does that either.

While some folks may think their 12-year-old is profoundly gifted for taking courses at a community college instead of being in 6th grade, a college professor would likely adamantly disagree. More likely, it shows how low academic standards are for these institutions now. Colleges are teaching concepts that should have been mastered in K-12 coursework instead of treating them as prerequisites. It’s not that your kid is high performing, but that some colleges are now low performing. This is not a good thing in our society.

All but the top tier of US universities have essentially started selling college degrees. It is a myth that college in general is exclusive. Only the top tier of universities do not accept nearly everyone who applies. Virtually everyone who graduates from high school can find some institution that is willing to take them, if they in turn are willing to shoulder the cost. This is what turning the federal government into a subsidized student loan machine that will loan unlimited amounts of money to teenagers has done to higher education. We borrow endless amounts of money in the US Treasury market from China and Japan, and use the proceeds to make student loans so every Starbucks barista can have a graduate degree and teach 6th graders part-time at the local community college. This is how broken our education system is. Heck, that’s how broken our federal budget is.

And having middle-schoolers enrolling in college courses is arguably diluting the value of a college degree even further.

This is not to say that enrolling a child who is legitimately profoundly gifted in a traditional four-year university that fits their research goals is a bad idea. But turning community colleges into de facto K-12 public schools seems like objectively bad policy.

As a parent, I almost think using those years to have your child do independent research projects with a carefully selected professional mentor might be a better idea. It will help them mature, build professional connections, and decide if they really want to follow a specific path or consider other alternatives. I don’t know, I am on the fence. But the more I look at dual enrollment programs, the more it seems like everyone is simply agreeing to say the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

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