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What Is Dual Enrollment? (My Experience and Tips for Success)

It seems like dual enrollment is becoming a more and more popular choice for high school students, and it’s a good one. Maybe you’ve heard of it or had it suggested to you by your academic counselor, and you’re curious what it’s all about

I was in 9th grade the first time anyone ever talked to me about dual enrollment. It was fairly new in my state back then, and there weren’t a lot of clear rules surrounding it, or even necessarily a set program.

I chose (or rather, at that age, my parents chose) to enroll me in some language classes at our local community college because the language classes at my school, quite frankly, sucked.

In 11th grade, I enrolled in a fully-fledged dual enrollment program and started going to college full-time. For me, it was one of the best decisions I could have made for my education.

Before I go any further, let’s answer the question of “what the heck is dual enrollment, anyway?”. After that, I’ll list some pros and cons so you can make an informed decision about whether it’s right for you. At the very end, I’ve got three big tips for how to succeed, taken from my own experience as a dual enrollment student.

But first, on to the big question:

What is Dual Enrollment?

Put simply, “dual enrollment” is just early college. As the Department of Education puts it, “Students enroll in post-secondary coursework while also enrolled in high school.”

“But wait!” you’re probably wondering. “Does that mean I’m taking both college- and high school-level classes, or am I just going to full-time college instead of high school?”

The short answer? Yes.

The long answer: it’s up to you and your particular college’s dual enrollment program. In mine, I knew some people who were doing both college and high school. I tried doing both during my first year, quickly got overwhelmed, and switched to full-time college instead. It was easier than constantly having to hop schools.

How your grades are calculated widely depends on your state, school, and program. Be aware that some states limit how many credits you can take during a term, and some have a required minimum.

Most states ask that you also have a minimum GPA to qualify for early college, usually a 2.0 or higher. In my home state of Oregon, the state requires that you’re graded against the same standards as other, older students on-campus. We had standard tests we had to take, and you might too. These are all things to research, talk to your admissions office about, and prepare for before you jump into a dual-enrollment program.

Pros and Cons of Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment has a number of advantages; otherwise, there wouldn’t be over 1.4 million students enrolled in various programs across the country. It’s important to weigh the advantages against the drawbacks so you can make an informed decision about whether or not enrolling in a dual enrollment course is right for you.

Here are the main advantages and drawbacks I found during my time as a dual enrollment student, as well as a couple other things you ought to consider before deciding to join a dual enrollment program.

Pros:

1. Less debt

This is one of the biggest advantages. Dual enrollment courses usually come at a reduced or zero cost.

When I went, the money that would have been spent to send me to a public school was simply funneled over to the college I went to, so all of my courses were completely free for two years.

I finished my associate’s degree with zero debt, far earlier than I would have otherwise. Which leads to the next point:

2. Finish college earlier

Most dual enrollment courses begin in the 10th or 11th grade, meaning you’re getting into college at least one whole year earlier than your peers who stay in a traditional school environment. The earlier you finish college, the earlier you can get on with the rest of your life.

3. Rapid academic growth

College courses are probably more of a challenge than you’re used to. Good professors will push you.

When I enrolled in my first writing course after being told in high school that I was above average, my writing professor politely told me that I could do better. She gave me the first “B” on a paper I’d ever received in my life.

I needed that pressure, and I got it from my professors in every class I took. It pushed me above and beyond the academic growth that I would have seen in any regular high school class.

4. Better access to resources

For me, this was a big factor in choosing to enroll in college early. Up until then, I had been going to a very small school that had little to offer in the way of resources and extracurriculars. Dual enrollment gave me access to language classes in Russian, Japanese, ASL, French, and many more.

I had access to all sorts of different P.E. classes, dance classes, sciences, anthropology courses, and pretty much everything else you could think of. I wasn’t confined to the regular high-school curriculum, and so I found much more interesting classes and activities to fulfill my credit requirements.

5. You waste less time

Dual enrollment lets you get all (or at least a majority) of your core classes out of the way before you transfer to a four-year university. This means you waste less time (and money). Once you get to college, you can jump straight into whatever 4-year-degree you want to specialize in.

6. Avoid the SAT and ACT

Depending on your state and the requirements of your preferred future university, you might be able to avoid taking tests like the SAT or ACT.

Once you have a college transcript, many colleges won’t care about your test scores. They’ll care more about your GPA and transcript you received from your program.

7. You have a better chance of going on to enroll in a four-year program

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that students who enrolled in an early college program were 80% more likely to go on to a four-year university afterward.

They found that only 12% of those students didn’t go on to finish their degrees by the age of 20. So, you’re vastly improving your chances of finishing college by participating in a dual enrollment program.

8. You’re better prepared for your future four-year university

College is a very different beast compared to high school. If you participate in a dual enrollment program, you avoid some of the culture shock. This is because dual enrollment plunges you straight into rigorous academia, but you still have lots of help in the form of counselors and the dual enrollment program itself.

When I was going, I had three different counselors I could call upon. Most professors were also extremely helpful once they realized how old I was and kept their office doors open for me. That allowed me to learn to navigate college while the risks (and some of the responsibility) associated with mistakes were still fairly low.

9. You have a team of people who WANT you to succeed

For most dual enrollment programs, their funding is directly proportionate to the GPAs of their students.

This means that your appointment counselors are ready and willing to give you the tools you need to succeed. They’re also very invested in your grades. Use this to your advantage.

Cons

1. You’ll have to find a new social circle

Unless you have a very special group of friends at your high school, you may find that it’s hard to keep up with your peers and spend time with them.

Be prepared to find a new social circle within your dual enrollment courses. This can be really hard to do, and I found personally that my dual enrollment experience was pretty lonely.

2. There’s so much stress

While you do have counselors and plenty of resources, it’s still on you to succeed. Your professors probably won’t care if you go to class every day, and daily homework is rare.

On top of that, In high school, you have a little bit of grace when it comes to how well you do. In college, everything is dependant on how well you manage your time and how much self-discipline you have.

No one is going to do your homework for you, make you go to class instead of hanging around the common building by the vending machines, and if you fail a test or even a class, it’s up to you to make it up.

It’s your responsibility to get the appropriate amount of study time and go to class when you’re supposed to.

3. It’s not for everyone

If you are a student who already does a bunch of extra-curricular activities at your high school or are involved in sports, you probably won’t have as much time as you need to succeed in early college.

You can still do dual enrollment, but you’ll have to drop some extracurriculars to give yourself enough time. You have to decide if this is worth it for your situation.

4. Be careful what classes you choose

Make sure you research your preferred future university well and know what credits they will actually take.

Not all credits will transfer. It’s helpful to sit down with your academic counselor every term so they can help you choose classes that meet your goals.

5. Be careful what professors you choose

Unlike high school, you actually have a lot of choices for what kind of class you want to take in each subject. Make sure you check RateMyProfessor and ask around before making your final decision, as the quality of the class will entirely depend on what kind of teacher they are.

Try not to settle for a professor you know you won’t learn from or won’t like, and don’t be afraid to choose one who others say is “difficult.” In my experience, those difficult professors often gave me the best education.

6. You’ll have to research your preferred future college…a lot. Some colleges think it’s awesome that you took the initiative to enroll in early college. Some colleges are less approving.

If you’re looking to have a sports career, those classes from your local community college might even interfere with their ability to accept you. So make sure you do your research beforehand to ensure that you’re setting yourself up for the best possible outcome.

7. You’ll have to get used to a different way of doing things. The course pacing is completely different in college. Expect to have less daily homework than you might be used to. Most of the work of actually understanding the material your professor gives you in class falls to you. You’ll have to get really comfortable with how to skim textbooks, synthesize information, and take good notes.

Projects happen more often, and they’re weighted more. Expect to have a lot of projects and tests. These are your professor’s way of gauging how well you understand what’s talked about in class. They’re worth a lot of your grade, so you’ll have to be good at writing essays and managing complex tasks and projects without anyone looking over your shoulder and holding your hand.

How to Succeed as a Dual Enrollment Student:

Okay, so you’re fully informed, and you’re ready to jump into this whole dual enrollment thing feet first. But how do you make sure you’re successful?

During my time as a dual enrolled student, I found four main rules to be most helpful. I got these tips from talks with older students who had already been through the program successfully, study skills classes, sessions with my academic counselors, and my own experience.

1. Make the Most of Your Time

Your time is your most precious resource. Use it wisely. Do your best to always go to class. Class time is an opportunity to demonstrate what you do and do not know. You can participate in discussion, ask questions, and learn things from your professor and classmates that the text can’t teach you.

Going to lectures also gives you the opportunity to draw valuable connections between what your professor chooses to teach in class and what your assigned reading says. Those connections are often on the test, and you wouldn’t know about them otherwise.

And while we’re on the subject of going to class, try to avoid extreme times, like those 8 AM math courses and late night literature classes. You might think it’s a great idea.

But you’ll kick yourself later in the term when your head feels as heavy as an anvil on a slinky and you’re desperately pouring your Rockstar into your latte and guzzling it down.

Seriously, don’t do it. Keep your class times to reasonable blocks unless you absolutely have to do differently.

As you’re scheduling your classes, make an effort to schedule them in blocks, especially if you’re also still taking classes back at your old high school. Once you go home, you won’t want to go back out again.

2. Use the Resources Available to You

As soon as you possibly can, educate yourself on what resources your college offers students. Ask your counselor, they probably have a good idea.

There’s usually a location on campus where you can find tutors in several different subjects, and your professors have office hours they wish more students would take advantage of.

Most of all, if you’re unsure of something, then just ask.

3. Study Intelligently, and Don’t Overwork Yourself

Of course, you can manage your time as effectively as you like, but if you don’t study intelligently, then all the time management in the world won’t help your grades.

When you’re in class, take good notes and make friends who you can study with. You can help keep each other accountable to go to class. In my personal experience, when I’m struggling with a subject, I find it much easier to learn and push through when there’s someone else who’s doing it with me. Try it, see if it works for you.

If you can help it, try not to work a hectic part-time job on top of everything else unless it’s a warm body job. Warm body jobs are things like low-level office work, helping out at the school library…jobs that allow you to work on your homework in your downtime.

Don’t do what I did and work a hectic on-your-feet irregular sort of job. I quickly found that it was too much for me to handle. I could never find enough time to get adequate sleep and finish my homework on time, and my health suffered…which brings me to the next point…

4. Always Have a Sanity Anchor

Now, this next tip is one that really stuck with me. It comes from a friend of mine who went through the program before I did, and it was her self-cited #1 key to success: always have a “sanity class”.

Sure, you might feel like you want to load up on all the credits you can and get the hard stuff out of the way first, but it’s wiser to have one class that’s either something easy, or something you definitely enjoy.

Whether that’s a chill Pilates or dance class, or, if you’re like me, an interesting niche literature or humanities course, is up to you. Don’t feel bad about having one lower-credit course every term. You’ll find your grades will improve if you don’t overwork yourself.

Make Dual Enrollment Work for You

Dual enrollment isn’t for everyone, but if you feel as if you can handle it, then go for it. Just make sure you do your research, you’re well-informed, and that you aren’t in danger of burnout.

For me, dual enrollment was the best option out there. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t chosen that path. Sure, it was really difficult, and I made some mistakes, but it launched me way ahead of my peers. I don’t regret it for a second.

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