As high school students mull which classes to take next fall, many are hoping to get a leg up in the college admissions race by choosing "dual enrollment" courses — university-level academics offered at their schools that earn them actual college credit.
About 2 million students in the U.S., in 82 percent of high schools, are enrolled in such programs, according to a 2013 report.
The classes are attractive to high schoolers and their parents because they have the potential to help a student skip prerequisites or other college courses — and for some, that might mean saving money on the path toward a college degree.
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Earning a good grade in dual enrollment coursework is also seen as a boost to a college application.
But dual enrollment courses can be less structured than other college-level curricula offered in high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Here are five things to consider before enrolling in dual enrollment classes:
Know what you are signing up for and where.
The terms "dual enrollment" or "dual credit" can mean different things at different schools, and the details matter: Is the instructor an actual college professor, or a high school teacher who has been accredited to teach the class by a college? Is the class held on the high school campus or on a college campus? Is there an end-of-course exam or the equivalent that can prove mastery of the material? Will dual enrollment courses be weighted by the student's high school on their transcripts and in their high school GPA? All of these answers determine how colleges will look at these credits on a high school transcript and how they will handle them once a student is on their campus.
Dual enrollment classes might not be more rigorous.
The quality and content can vary widely. Depending on the class, the instructor, and the accrediting institution, dual enrollment classes might not be considered more challenging than others - especially AP or IB classes - by the student or by college admissions offices. If a student's goal is rigor, consult a counselor familiar with the courses at their particular high school before choosing dual enrollment.
Colleges do not always award credit or higher placement for dual enrollment classes.
Some students take dual enrollment classes with the hopes of saving money on college credits later or starting college as a sophomore or a junior with credits they earned in high school. This is not always possible, and for a good reason: just because an 18-year-old starts college with as many credits as a third-year college student does not necessarily mean they are ready for upperclass coursework, academically or developmentally. Additionally, colleges again might not consider dual enrollment credits to be equivalent in content to the same courses they teach on their own campuses.
Sara Harberson, the college admissions expert behind Admissions Revolution, told NBC News, "When I used to work at the University of Pennsylvania, there was the 'double-dip' rule. Students weren't allowed to 'double-dip.' If they received credit for dual enrollment courses to graduate from high school, they did not receive credit towards their degree at Penn."
Dual enrollment credits can affect NCAA eligibility for athletes.
The NCAA's policies regarding early college credits and eligibility are somewhat inconsistent and vary based on the factors listed above, specifically if the classes are taken at a high school or at a college.
Student athletes must make sure the dual enrollment classes are listed by their schools in their approved course list for the NCAA; every school has a list. Dual enrollment courses can benefit athletes by providing them a way to earn some of the required minimum number of college credits before their second year of college, thus giving the students more room in their schedules and time to adjust to college classes and sports schedules. However, athletes have to be careful if they take dual enrollment classes at community colleges: sometimes, those courses might figuratively start their eligibility clocks and count against them when it comes to calculating how much eligibility they have left once they actually arrive on their campuses.
There are intangible benefits to dual enrollment courses.
Dual enrollment courses may provide engaging content and fulfilling work that would not otherwise be available to a high school student.
"The litmus test is, does your child have an absolute love of the subject? Can your child handle the extra load? Actual college students only take three or four courses at a time, but some of these high school students are taking six or seven AP or dual enrollment classes in a semester," said Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, which helps educators, students, and parents create healthier school environments.
Before taking dual enrollment classes, do your homework.
"In the end, dual enrollment sounds more attractive to the high school community than the colleges," Harberson said. "Whether colleges are a bit pretentious about courses taught at other colleges or the fact that they lose money when students arrive on their campuses with credit, dual enrollment is not universally accepted and students should do their research before signing up for it."