Dual-Enrollment—Effective Strategies or Seductive Stratagems?

Ever since affirmative action debuted to skepticism and court challenges, educators have sought alternative blueprints for boosting minority representation in college and, in turn, the white-collar stratum of American society. This has been especially true in the technical disciplines that lead to high-paying STEM jobs. With the University of California poised to become the largest university system in the nation to scrap admissions testing, it might be instructive to look at another emerging academic phenomenon, as it raises legitimate questions about whether policies like California’s are effective strategies or seductive stratagems.

In 2011, IBM partnered with the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York (CUNY) to launch its first Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. “Students in the program were 100 percent people of color, most from low-income families,” Stanley Litow, a chief architect of the program and former president of the IBM Foundation, effused in Barron’s.

P-TECH was billed as a quantum improvement over the rest of a movement then overspreading the land—and surely one of the most confusing, least uniform movements ever to do so: the early-college phenomenon. Technically, it was a misnomer to lump all such programs under the early college rubric, for in theory, key features distinguished early college per se from the two other major iterations of the trend: dual enrollment and concurrent enrollment. The official Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI), spearheaded in 2002 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, enabled disadvantaged high school students to earn up to two years of low- or no-cost credit toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Prior to P-TECH, ECHSI was the most programmatic of the models, specifying certain coursework, unlike the more laissez-faire/a la carte approaches of the other two concepts, which differed from each other chiefly in terms of the instruction venues. Generally, if the college-level courses were taught at an actual college, the program was labeled dual enrollment; if they were taught at a high school, it was labeled concurrent enrollment.

But just as the word Kleenex soon came to refer to all tissues, early college eventually came to encompass any and all attempts to accelerate the pace of higher education for underprivileged youths. And many of the aforementioned distinctions proved to be nominal anyway; in practice, by the time P-TECH came along, the early college movement had become a hodgepodge of curricula wherein high school students could basically “[try] out a few [college] classes while still in high school,” as one info site described it. Studies of the phenomenon, like this one conducted in Texas, found almost as many variations between individual programs as there were programs. Notwithstanding formal labels, courses were sometimes taught on a college campus…and sometimes not…sometimes by instructors who would have passed muster in college classrooms…and sometimes not. Not infrequently the supposed college-level courses were found to be less academically stringent than conventional advanced-placement courses. In most settings these programs called for students to stay on beyond high school’s traditional grades 9 through 12 (from age 14 to 18), but in others the programs tasked students with squeezing an unusually aggressive “bolt on” course-load into the customary four years.

P-TECH, in contrast, promised one continuous all-embracing curriculum, a seamless six-year integration of tandem coursework and vocational tutelage that culminated in both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computer science. All of this would be free to the student. The process would cover grades 9 through 14, a nod to “free college” advocates who argue that basic public education should include college instead of ending with high school graduation after grade 12. P-TECH’s advocates emphasized from the first that it wasn’t a matter of “spending an extra two years in high school,” but rather a wholesale reconceptualization of the secondary-school experience in which high school, college, and career training were permitted to overlap. To quote from the literature, “Students see themselves as ‘college students’ and ‘on a career pathway’ from the moment they begin 9th grade.” P-TECH also foreshadowed initiatives like the new California university admissions system by enrolling students by lottery, thereby eliminating the entrance exams and other prerequisites that had long been a staple feature of New York’s elite science high schools. The IBM program also encompassed corporate internships and dangled the prospect of preferential hiring at the tech giant upon graduation.

P-TECH was lauded as responsive to two of the key thrusts in modern pedagogy: adding a more vocational tilt to higher education, and leveling a playing field perceived as biased against minorities, who typically lack the quality grade-school STEM prep that enables students to survive the challenging entrance gauntlet for spots in other top science programs. The lofty expectations for P-TECH were clear in the headline of a 2015 Wired piece, “IBM’s School Could Fix Education—And Tech’s Diversity Gap.” The principal of the pilot school, Rashid Davis, proclaimed his staff “missionaries” who were out to “change the world.” President Obama thought enough of P-TECH to mention it in his 2013 State of the Union address. He later called the concept “a ticket into the middle class.”

Unsurprisingly, the P-TECH model spread like a California wildfire. Microsoft, Johns Hopkins, and a variety of other major firms have since joined IBM in sponsoring new P-TECH installations, located almost exclusively in minority-majority neighborhoods. By year-end 2019, there will be 220 such schools serving 100,000 students. The technological scope has broadened, with programs variously designed to yield two-year degrees in any number of technical disciplines, some far removed from the IT curricula built into the original IBM installation. Data are still modest, but overall graduation rates are comparable to or better than those of conventional high school and two-year college programs. Some students have graduated in five years with both a diploma and an associate’s degree in hand.

Nirvana? Not so fast. Red flags were evident even in the Brooklyn prototype. NPR reported in 2016 that 21 percent of grades earned by P-TECH students in their college-level work at CUNY were Ds and Fs. Technical majors need a minimum C in each core course to stay on track for their associate’s degree and to matriculate, later, in four-year programs. But since retaking courses to boost grades would have thrown students off P-TECH’s aggressive timeline, IBM and the high school beseeched CUNY to make accommodations. College officials balked, but the response from Principal Davis was telling. He said he felt duty-bound “to protect the most vulnerable students” from “elitist policies and practices.” In short, allowances had to be made.

Those early glitches were seemingly smoothed over, and fewer students failed as the program moved along, but there is evidence that that mindset—making allowances for the vulnerable—became part and parcel of P-TECH and other early-college programs as they were scaled up. Critics allege a climate of flexible standards, grade inflation, and a watering down of the most demanding coursework—“college courses that were not college level,” as one math teacher lamented in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Alec Thomson, President of Schoolcraft College Faculty Forum, has observed that, “These high schoolers are provided with a modicum of familiarity and credit acquisition—not the mastery of skills and the development of abilities.” A university president went so far as to question whether engineers would emerge from these programs having mastered the calculus they need to succeed.

Lawmakers who examined various incarnations of dual-enrollment programs were stunned to find students earning college credits for taking gym. There are whispers of efforts to micromanage student success through a level of hands-on mentoring that reminds some of the way Division I athletes were “facilitated” in the bad old days, with strings pulled in order to justify the model. Tellingly, promotional material for these schools sometimes omits mention of students’ eventual achievement in standardized tests, which, according to think tank columnist Shannon Watkins, “are a stronger—and more precise—indicator of whether students are actually learning than graduation rates, which can be influenced by other factors such as grade inflation.” Some schools, like Chicago’s Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, have had trouble maintaining an environment conducive to learning, resulting in a very poor “report card” [click “reports” on the linked page] for the school.

Also, as the programs and sponsorships diversified, they strayed farther from IBM’s founding “lesson plan.” Curricula and criteria differ wildly nowadays, which is concerning because most of these hundreds of proliferating programs are technically answerable to no particular credentialing body. The National Alliance for Concurrent Enrollment Programs (NACEP) is the sole national accrediting organization for dual enrollment partnerships of all types; a relative handful of the several hundred programs are listed as credentialed by NACEP. Aside from the qualitative problems cited above, this variability can create significant credit-transferability headaches. Although circumstances evolve on the fly, as of 2017, only about half of the existing programs in the US had agreements in place requiring public two- and four-year colleges to accept or transfer the credits earned from early-college programs.

However, the programs have caught the eye of legislators, who increasingly take steps to prevent more rigorous college officials from throwing a wrench into the process. Some states with a heavy dual-enrollment emphasis have banned the remedial courses typically mandated for students who enter college unprepared, so as not to slow the brisk pace of the early-college programs. As Thomson has written, “At a time when the majority of high school students are not considered to be ‘college-ready,’ it is curious that state lawmakers’ preferred remedy to these deficiencies is to accelerate students’ conduit to college.”

Although it’s premature to render any verdicts on the ultimate worth of early college as a whole, at a certain point we must ask if the goal is simply to protect students—as Principal Davis put it—or to project them through school and into the workforce without the proper groundwork in place? Bizarrely, as Thomson tells us, “In many places, dual enrollment programs are being expanded to target those individuals who struggle with high school basics.” Could there be a more succinct statement that such programs are being used—abused?—as a way of bypassing the usual readiness criteria in order to simply place students on a predetermined path?

One might argue that the latter ethic has actually been a key thread in American educational policy of the past several decades, connecting self-esteem-based education to affirmative action to early college to the University of California’s pending decision: attempts, one and all, to treat educational inequities symptomatically.

We are a people who like to right wrongs. We root for the underdog. But there is no panacea here. As I wrote recently in this space, proponents of self-esteem-based education, designed chiefly to help at-risk students, learned this lesson through the disastrous slide in test scores in the decades following its implementation. Meanwhile, backers of affirmative action are being forced to face up to its sobering failures on behalf of those admitted under its auspices, in terms of the both lackluster grades and dropout rates.

Nevertheless, we look out across the landscape of society and see a success gap that skews along racial lines, and in our zeal to mitigate that gap we repeatedly take shortcuts of dubious value to the supposed beneficiaries. These only impede the pursuit of excellence in a nation that should be striving to raise the bar, not lower it.


Steve Salerno is a widely published essayist and professor of journalism. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the self-improvement industry’s wider footprint in society. You can follow him on Twitter @iwrotesham

Feature image: US President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a classroom at the Pathways in Technology Early College High School October 25, 2013 in Brooklyn, NY.


  1. This reminds me of a response I wrote recently on another site, addressing the question of how the Left and the Right differ in their views on education.

    TLDR, the Right views education as a means to an end and the Left views education as the endgame and is obsessed with credentialism.

    These programs are driven by the Left, ergo they will “help” nonwhite people by bestowing credentials upon them. The learning of functional skills is not necessary.

  2. It will be the responsibility of private industry to teach their underprivileged STEM hires how to do basic math. Or not.

    For the Left, it doesn’t really matter if they can do the work. It’s not about work.

  3. I often wonder whether it is just a matter of dialect, or whether the Americans have chosen on purpose to create a culture of disrepect for order.
    In both this article and the one about school discipline we hear of ‘‘students,’’ ‘’ teachers’’ and ‘‘principals’’ not of ‘‘pupils’’ ‘‘masters’’ and ‘‘headmasters’’. The relationship between the school and the children is reversed by referring to the pupils as students. Students are people studying in institutions of higher education. Children attending school are pupils, and have the subordinate status that the word pupil denotes. Similarly, calling the person who teaches pupils a master and the chief teacher a headmaster we make it clear who is top dog in the learning relationship.
    Instituting a change of language and a change of attitude in public schools will do far more to assist the disadvantaged than special ed programmes or affirmative action.

  4. One thing that has worked quite successfully at the UEA is a foundation year, prior to beginning a fully-fledged university course. That being said, all the studies prove that social mobility is highest amongst students who are appropriately matched to universities that fit their natural talents. Perhaps the most convincing argument, is the data gathered by Dr Raj Chetty in his study of social mobility.

    And, of course, when we look at the true motives behind scrapping testing, then we can understand why the wealthy and privileged are dead-set on removing tests. Because one of the main reasons for introducing testing in the first place, was to ensure that elite institutions were less exclusive, in terms of socio-economic class. Race is a distraction meant to muddy the waters on the true motives behind this move to reform. Because it is the very wealthy parents that support universities as economically viable institutions, especially in terms of endowments. Here is an article on the subject:

    So really this movement for diversity is about making elite colleges less diverse, in terms of socio-economic background, only serving to increase the social stratification that is an increasing trend in the societies of the West. It’s about class- and let’s not forget that for every somewhat gifted child of the 0.1% who makes it into an elite college when they only fall in the top 5% of the cognitive distribution, that’s one more kid with an IQ of 160 or more, who ends up having to settle for second best.

    The answer to the diversity question, is a reformulation of the primary and secondary education. Positive examples abound. Success Academy in New York. The Michaela Community School and Brampton Manor Academy in London. Teaching methods vary between the Traditional and Progressive approach, although it would appear that in the latter case, major efforts were required to basically rewrite the syllabus to make it knowledge-rich. But the commonalities are striking once one goes beyond structure and methodology.

    Strict enforcement of low-level discipline (such as detentions) is vital in achieving high results, with a 10 minute disruption per hour equating to two years lost education. So you will see teachers standing in hallways making sure kids move silently and quickly from one class to the next. Such policies also break the school-to-prison pipeline as they avert the escalating behaviour that inevitably leads to expulsions and exclusions. Beyond that, parental involvement is key, with all of the schools that defy the odds insisting that parents enforce homework schedules and actively contribute to the educational endeavour.

    In many ways equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes are mutually exclusive concepts and any attempt to increase inclusivity will also increase unfairness. In the long run, too much equality of outcomes may precipitate system-wide economic collapse- because, whilst it may be feasible to run equality of outcome as a software in media or tech, where profit margins or capital growth are high- try running that in the car industry where margins fluctuate between 5 and 6% and your business will collapse- as the gulf between the best candidate and the next best candidate becomes readily apparent. Plus, people operate on trust, not power, and if you undermine the human reciprocity inherent to a boss rewarding the most talented and conscientious individuals, then the social cohesion of your enterprise will quickly collapse and media leaks undermining your brand image from resentful employees are sure to follow. Because, especially with males, you are not only compromising their career prospects, but also endangering their ability to mate.

    So the answer to the quandary of equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity really is education. It is quite literally the only factor that can draw these polar opposite approaches together. But instead of obsessing about funding, or arguing the pros and cons of public vs charter in some meaningless debate over structure, educationalists and politicians need to focus on structured low-level discipline and parental support. This doesn’t mean parents need degrees, but it does mean that they need to make sure their kid has done their work, keeping in contact with the school to monitor their child’s performance.

    Because the difference between a great school and and an average school really makes only a small difference, with the current system- with only a poor school likely to sabotage a child’s life outcomes. But change the system- and suddenly almost all schools today will appear poor, by comparison to the schools of tomorrow. Currently, the substandard approaches employed in education are ensuring that the inherent advantages a child with two well-educated parent and a home full of books are only amplified, increasing social stratification and inequality by socio-economic background- but level the playing field by increasing discipline and socially enforcing school-to-parent relationships and you give bright kids from poorer backgrounds a fighting chance to compete in the world of tomorrow.

  5. Geary, just so I understand you here. You’re claiming that the primary motive/reason for ending standardized testing is not because it creates a pernicious intellectual barrier to entry for minorities – who on average do worse than whites/Asians – but because it creates a barrier for dumb rich kids – who on average do worse than smart poor kids – and who would otherwise (in the absence of testing) buy their way into elite colleges; is that right?

    If this is a fair summation of your claim; would it then also be the case that the impetus for scrapping “low-level discipline,” we now see in so many schools, is being done not because it creates a pernicious behavior barrier to entry for minorities – who on average receive detention/suspended more than whites/Asians – but because it creates a barrier for dumb rich kids – who on average receive detention/suspended more than smart poor kids – and who would otherwise (in the absence of low-level discipline) buy their way out of trouble?

    Indeed, it would be strange if this were not the case, would it not?

    My incredulity notwithstanding, I’m perfectly happy to concede there is, I think, some probability in the view that for some non-insignificant portion of the far Left (Hollywood, social media elites, wealthy minorities et al.), the motive for ending standardized testing is at bottom a political vocation completely devoid of any sincerity for ameliorating the “pernicious” effect(s) (disparate outcomes) for its own sake. That said, however, while two things can be true at once, I would balk at the idea that such ‘uncharitable’ motivations are the primary reason for the majority of the Left, e.g., Bill de Blasio.

    What’s so disconcerting here is that while it’s eminently reasonable to assume the boundary between our genes and the environment is not always clear nor well understood, the claim that education can quite literally bridge the quandary of equality of outcome vs. opportunity would seem to have breached the metaphysical threshold.

    Keeping in mind that IQ or intelligence has been shown to correlate with, among other things, parental income, race/ethnicity, and adaptive behavior; if an individual or population has or is known to have a cognitive deficit that would prevent (or make it highly unlikely) them from learning chemical equations, educational endeavors – regardless of how they’re operationally defined – undertaken to teach the individual/population Avogadro’s constant or stoichiometric numbers would not only not draw together equality of opportunity vs. outcome, but would in fact waste resources attempting (but failing) to do so.

    That’s not to suggest that merely being poor/minority is an automatic disqualifier (or worse, a guarantee of one’s failure), but it is to say that education in and of itself is not the answer to the quandary of equality of outcome vs. opportunity. It may be an unpopular view, but we must ask ourselves, how can one have an opportunity for X without the ability to do X?

    Forgive me for breaking into essentialist talks, but this is a conversation society needs to have. Anecdotal though it may be, I happen to know something of the misanthropic adventure that is generational poverty (by Western standards). I was born to it; it and many of the parental/societal trappings that will often accompany such feral stock. And, to be blunt, much of it was a symptom, not a cause.

    Take for example conspicuous consumption or even something simpler like playing the lottery. Despite what many on the Left would like to believe, poor people don’t play the lottery because they’re poor; poor people are poor because they’re bad with money as evidenced by them doing stupid shit like playing the lottery.

    In closing, it seems appropriate to concede I may have misunderstood you to some unfair degree, or even missed your point altogether. In fairness to you, I would hate to be uncharitable in my interpretation and, if that is the case, to the extent that I am, I can assure you, it was not purposely so. Look forward to your response. Thanks!

  6. In the US, at any rate, students are thought of as “customers”. You’ll hear this most often on university campuses, but the thinking infects the primary and secondary school systems as well.

    In the US, teachers serve the students. Imagine, if you will, a public high school in an inner-city neighborhood called “McDonald’s”. Gives you an idea.

    And the customer is always right.

  7. One might argue that the latter ethic has actually been a key thread in American educational policy of the past several decades, connecting self-esteem-based education to affirmative action to early college to the University of California’s pending decision: attempts, one and all, to treat educational inequities symptomatically.

    But that’s not the final link in the chain. When everyone has a college degree, which is the direction we’re heading in, private industry and government agencies will be forced to hire people who have required degrees, even if they never did, and never will be able to do, the work.

    NASA, for example, will hire people with STEM degrees who barely understand what rocket science is. They won’t be trusted with building rockets, of course, but they’ll be given administrative jobs that pay exactly the same as the Chinese and Russian immigrants who will be, very nearly, the only scientists there who know what they’re doing.

    All employers will increasingly find that they must hire a greater percentage of dead wood with college degrees in order to avoid legal action for bias, with a shrinking percentage of competent employees carrying everybody else’s weight.

    That next link in the Progressive Socialist chain will be equal status and equal income for everyone, regardless of ability.

  8. Interesting point! I wonder if there is a false-consensus effect going on between the different political groups?

    For someone who is a member of the elite credentials actually may be more valuable than the education. Getting a Harvard law degree will put you on the fast track to success whereas a law degree from a public university would been seen as a blemish to a resume(assuming same level of education between the institutions). So therefore if I was a member of the elite I would view credentials as the path to success since getting receiving a good education is seen as a given.

    Now if someone was from a working class background credentials wouldn’t even enter into the equation. “I need to get a good education and I don’t care where it is!” So the education factor is more fundamental.

    As more and more of these policies are rolled out I’m starting to believe that the leadership of the Left is almost entirely made up of elites and they are incapable of relating to the struggles of the lower classes which will make providing adequate solutions less likely.

  9. “As I wrote recently in this space, proponents of self-esteem-based education, designed chiefly to help at-risk students, learned this lesson through the disastrous slide in test scores in the decades following its implementation. Meanwhile, backers of affirmative action are being forced to face up to its sobering failures on behalf of those admitted under its auspices, in terms of the both lackluster grades and dropout rates.”

    While I don’t disagree with the above statement, I do not see anyone learning lessons or facing up to anything. Rather I see a continuation of the same head in the sand ruinous policies.

    Nevertheless, we look out across the landscape of society and see a success gap that skews along racial lines, and in our zeal to mitigate that gap we repeatedly take shortcuts of dubious value to the supposed beneficiaries. These only impede the pursuit of excellence in a nation that should be striving to raise the bar, not lower it.

    Excellent summary and conclusion.

  10. We have teachers who claim to learn more from their students than vice versa. You can’t make up this level of nonsense.

  11. Hey ! I have a great idea ! Let’s enroll kids who are failing high school in technical STEM college courses ! God, I feel empowered when I am creating new education strategies for the inner city ! I’m thinking outside the box !

  12. Is in decline, I think.

    It’s fun to have conversations about how the US can be saved, or turned around, or put back on a path to an imagined past. It passes the time. But if I had money to bet, and time to see the investment mature, I would put my money against the US existing as a nation by the close of this century, and perhaps much sooner.

    And a side bet on OZ becoming a province of China.

  13. Decline can often take a long time. SO I don’t think we have to worry too much. The funny thing is that the progressives are now seeing that the conservatives were right about the need for moral rules. It’s just unfortunate that the rules the progressives would force upon us are arbitrary and inorganic. The great example of this is the attitude to sex. It’s quite clear now that if the ults-fems had their way, women in college should be chaperoned and kept away from young men altogether until marriage or a long-term relationship is in the offing. Then the lcky couple should have completely unspontaneous sex in which the man at every gesture and before each thrust must request permission to continue.

  14. And right on cue, this passage from National Review, regarding Pete Buttigieg:

    Buttigieg connects with his Atlantic -reading, six-figure-earning, Whole Foods–shopping flock as convincingly as Joel Osteen does with his. Asking “Er, what exactly has Pete Buttigieg ever accomplished?” is, to this crowd, wholly irrelevant. Do you ask what your local priest or minister has accomplished ? No, you simply revel in their homilies. Buttigieg isn’t really Mayor Pete. He’s Saint Pete.

    No one has ever gone directly from being mayor of a large city to the presidency before, much less mayor of a small city. Moreover, Buttigieg faces a singular problem in that it’s easier to pronounce his name than it is to cite anything he’s done. He’s all hat and no cattle. He’s human vaporware. He’s Credential Man. Check out all the brands he’s accumulated: Harvard, Rhodes Scholarship, the Navy, McKinsey & Company.

    Credentials, not accomplishments - the left-wing ideal.

  15. The bad angel on my right shoulder is telling me that just as we should stop trying to stop the drug industry, we should stop trying to stop the plutocrats from purchasing quality educations for their kids. Rotten commie that I am, I’d tax the rich, but after that, it seems to me that their money is theirs to spend as they wish, and if they want to hire $500 per hour tutors and bribe their way into Harvard – well, why make it difficult? Let them buy their way into Harvard at, say, 10X the tuition of those who actually pass the tests. All that loot could then be used as scholarships for the deserving poor.

    Or, there could be the University of Plutocracy, where the spoiled, stupid brats of the billionaires could keep their own company and the degrees awarded would (Andras will like this) find their true value in TFM. (A doctorate from UP, being entirely purchased, might not hold it’s value very well.)

    Across town is the University of Social Justice, which is more or less the norm now anyway but let’s make it official that you get in because you are a POC or a Victim and there are no standards at all. Everyone pursues their own ‘way of knowing’.

    Slicing off these two ‘ends’ of the educational spectrum would free up others schools to get back to the quaint notion of real education of those who can really be educated.

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