Credit: Morguefile photo by kconnors

The Options Increase

At one time there was a clear path to obtaining a degree. You went to high school and you worked hard. Then you graduated. Then you headed off to college.

Now, though, a growing number of students do this in reverse.

They go to college first, starting when they're as young as 14 or 15-years-old. And, when graduation day arrives, they walk off the stage with both a diploma and, possibly, a full year or more of higher education credits

Dual enrollment is a growing trend that can be an overwhelmingly positive experience, or a complete disaster.

Much depends upon the student, and his or her academic ability, time management skills and drive to succeed.

Loading Up On General Education Courses

Dual enrollment can be a great start. Typically, students take the same introductory classes they would take if they went the traditional route to a four-year institute. These are the "general ed" requirements, such English 101, pre-calculus, sociology, psychology and world history.

Most students still go to high school part of the day and commute to a nearby campus. The advent of online courses also makes it possible to "attend" most classes in the comfort of your home.

The credits earned count both toward a degree and high school graduation requirements. A student enrolled in English 101, for instance, won't have to take high school English that semester.

Dual enrollment courses are often taken at local community colleges, but it's also possible to find universities offering this option. Also, courses are sometimes offered in a high school setting.

Sometimes, community colleges make courses available in various other locations. Occasionally, classes are offered far afield, so students living in rural areas can get a jump start on their associate or bachelor's degrees.

College administrators go to great lengths to ensure this is a good experience, as they are invested in the success of their dual enrollment programs.

Dual Enrollment is Efficient and Economical

Typically, students save a great deal of money by taking advantage of dual enrollment offerings. Some three-credit courses are free. Others are just a nominal fee or deeply discounted. Even paying full community college tuition, which varies greatly from state to state, can offset the final price tag of a four-year degree.  Dual-enrolled students typically live at home and don't pay for dorm fees or college meal plans.

Our family is fortunate to live in an area with abundant dual-enrollment opportunities. There are several college campuses within an easy drive. My teenage children have courses while still living at home.

I highly recommend this route, with one caveat. The student has to be ready. The final grade earned will go on his or her college transcript. It will also be available to admissions officers when applying to a four-year school. A failing or barely passing grade is a black mark that can't be erased.

At different times, my children attended both a university, as well as a community college. The courses weren't particularly challenging, but they did learn. My son and my daughter both took a sociology course, and they loved it. They also got English 101 out of the way.

Here are the Advantages

Dual enrollment can be a great way to get a jump start on your college career. But it's not right for everyone. Here are the benefits.

  • Students can sample college-level classes before leaving home. Poor time-management skills will become readily apparent, allowing for improvement before moving into a dorm.
  • Students can take different electives to see what interests them before declaring a major.
  • This is a good way to earn college credit if your high school doesn't offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
  • Dual enrollment is a good cost-saving strategy, because community college courses are typically much less expensive than what you pay at a university. Also, some colleges offer a deep discount on dual-enrollment classes.
  • Dual enrollment allows you to earn high school and college credits at the same time.
  • College admissions officers tend to look favorably on dual-enrollment classes, provided there are no AP courses available.
  • Often, professors are hand-picked to provide a good first college experience.

Dual Enrollment's Downside

  • Some community college credits may not transfer to a private university. You should check first with your target schools, before investing the time.
  • Students without cars may find it challenging to arrange transportation.
  • Struggling students are not good candidates for dual enrollment.
  • A dual-enrollment grade is part of a student's permanent college record. Earning a bad grade in a given course is a potential risk.