High School Students Can Get College Credits on the Cheap -- But Is It Discount Education?
Jane is a straight-A high school student enrolled in a U.S. government course offered by her local community college. She'll be a freshman at a state university next fall, and wants to get some of the first-year work out of the way. She sits next to John, who has mostly Bs and Cs on his transcript, and hasn't decided about college yet. A counselor, hoping it would spark John's interest in higher education, suggested he try this course. John found he didn't care for the extra work and dropped the class, enrolling in the high school government course instead.
But John still sits next to Jane in the same classroom, taking notes from the same instructor -- a teacher at their high school. The two don't drive to the community college because the class is held on their school campus. When they complete the course work, Jane will get credit for U.S. government from both her high school and the community college: dual credit. John will get credit toward high school graduation only.
Is this the latest experiment in "learn at your own pace" education developed by a private academy? No, it's an increasingly standard offering at your public high school, and it's the next new thing in community college outreach. College credit is being delivered -- like Domino's pizza -- right to students' doorsteps.
There's nothing new about high school students trekking to local community colleges to get a jump on higher education. Partnerships between high schools and colleges that allow students to spend part of their school day on a college campus have been standard practice for more than 20 years. But the so-called "embedded" dual credit class -- in which high school students get college credit for courses taught by their high school teachers (the colleges prefer to call them "adjunct instructors") -- is a relatively new invention. In 1995, hoping to reverse the state's embarrassingly low rate of college enrollment, the Texas Legislature permitted community colleges to waive tuition for students who attend their classes but are still in high school. Legislators, did not, however, appropriate money for additional faculty or resources. The inevitable result? A new breed of class that awards college credit but requires little investment -- either in money or instruction -- from colleges.
Embedded dual credit courses have proven a smart marketing tool for increasing enrollment in community colleges. They're a sure-fire hit among parents, students, and high schools: What parents wouldn't love for their child to get free college credit in high school and save on tuition? What high school doesn't want the prestige of holding college-level courses on campus? And why should students trouble themselves with Advanced Placement courses when they can get college credit from a class that doesn't require them to pass a standardized test at the end? Community colleges, meanwhile, get paid by the state for awarding credit hours they don't have to pay professors to teach, and legislators gladly write them the check because students are getting two courses in one and sailing through the education system that much faster. No wonder that in the Austin Community College district, one of nine systems in the state that have dropped tuition for dual credit courses, enrollment growth in those classes is expanding by 25% to 50% per year. (ACC, however, still teaches the majority of its dual credit classes on its own campuses.)
But for those who value the traditional college experience, this popular new initiative that supposedly promotes the "seamless K-16" system heralded by education reformers looks more like the creeping vine of academic mediocrity. To the harsher critics, it even looks like a cruel joke being played on poor and minority students whose families may not make the same demands from colleges as their affluent, white counterparts. Students who've been college-bound since birth may find embedded dual credit classes a convenient short cut, but the classes are also used to hook those who aren't sure they can handle college work. Critics doubt whether a high school class -- in which some students are pursuing college credit and some not; in a setting prone to the usual high school distractions; where students are spared term papers and other requirements they would have to meet if they took the same course as college freshmen -- is genuine collegiate learning. Some suggest that dual credit classes may in fact be an institutional form of the "soft bigotry" -- expecting less from those with fewer advantages -- that former Texas Gov. George Bush denounced to justify standardized testing.
Educational researchers, however, say that Texas, one of a handful of states where dual credit programs are being aggressively marketed, may be stuck with them. Teacher shortages at high schools make it difficult for many to equip their students with the college preparation that state lawmakers demand, says Uri Treisman, director of UT's Dana Center, an influential education-policy think tank. (This session, the Lege required schools to automatically enroll high school freshmen in college-track curricula.) Given the state's "piss-poor" record of preparing high school seniors for college, says Treisman, even second-rate college classes may be better than what students would get otherwise. "Normally, the Dana Center would be out there writing muckraking reports about [embedded dual credit courses]," says Treisman. "But it's seen as a solution to a problem that's even worse." High school superintendents are keen to have the courses, says Treisman, because embedded dual credit classes enhance their teachers' professional development and prestige and prevent high-achieving students from migrating off-campus to the local community college.
Brian Dille, who's taught political science at Odessa College for 23 years, says after reviewing the homework his daughter brought home he concluded that there was "no comparison" between her embedded dual credit classes and what he considers college-level work. Dille, who teaches a course over the Internet, says he generally doesn't oppose his college employing creative methods for maintaining enrollment in its increasingly Hispanic West Texas district. But Dille says a committee he serves on that has studied Odessa's dual credit program has concluded the quality of off-campus courses is in doubt because they aren't closely monitored. The University of Texas-Pan American, a four-year school in Edinburg on the front lines in the state's effort to recruit minority college students, doesn't give entering freshmen credit for embedded dual credit classes on scholarship applications (universities are required by law, however, to count the credit toward graduation). "When you talk to students around here," says Special Assistant to the President Bud Frankenberger, "they're very frank about saying they're taking dual credit because it's easier."
The Higher Education Coordinating Board doesn't require community colleges to report whether dual credit courses are taught on their own campuses or not, but everyone agrees that dual credit classes are becoming increasingly popular. The board estimates that of a total of 35,000 high school students enrolled in dual credit classes last year, 11,000 attended "embedded" classes at their high schools. That's still a small fraction of the total high school population (Texas enrolls around 130,000 seniors annually), but in some community college districts, dual credit courses constitute up to 10% of all courses offered.
At the North Harris/Montgomery Community College District, north of Houston, one of the largest and most influential districts in the state, the administration's push for more embedded dual credit classes has touched off a resistance movement among faculty. Decrying what they say is a proliferation of watered-down courses, a handful of tenured professors have openly squared off against administrators in an effort to gain more control over curriculum and review. It's hardly an even match: To date, tenured faculty are virtually alone in protesting embedded dual credit classes, and they don't get much sympathy from administrators, who often would just as soon entice them to retire as listen to their complaints about declining standards. Meanwhile, legislators and state education authorities aren't inclined to challenge community colleges' dual credit programs, partially because they know little about what's going on in the classes. The Higher Education Coordinating Board has only recently taken an interest in tracking them, and universities are only beginning to monitor how well students who take the courses fare in college (so far, the results aren't encouraging). For the time being, Board Commissioner Don Brown says he's willing to accept the word of community college chancellors that embedded dual credit courses are up to snuff.
The Gatekeepers' Rebellion
So it's not surprising that no Houston TV crews drove out to North Harris College on a Wednesday morning in April when a handful of faculty, without permission from the NH/MCCD administration, met with college accreditation officials to warn them that dual credit classes are eroding the integrity of higher education. If the news teams had come, parking wouldn't have been a problem. This Seventies-era campus, nestled in pine trees just north of the Sam Houston Parkway, used to be the NH/MCCD's flagship institution, but time and demographic realities have left the college behind. The population in its service area has grown older and poorer as more affluent families have settled in suburbs to the west across I-45, where the community college district has been chasing them with new campuses. These days, the North Harris hallways are noticeably hushed. But it's here, where senior faculty comprise a larger portion of the teaching staff than on other NH/MCCD campuses, that faculty pressure has halted the district's efforts to set up embedded dual credit courses. Whereas other colleges in the district offer numerous sections of history, government, and English on high school campuses, North Harris College has refused to approve a single embedded dual credit course.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools conducted its routine check of NH/MCCD's accreditation status this year, prompting some faculty to ask for this special meeting with SACS representatives to try and persuade the association to withhold its stamp of approval from the district's dual credit program. Fewer than a dozen faculty members showed up -- a smaller showing than had been hoped for -- but others sent e-mails saying they have conflicts or feel too intimidated by the administration to attend. Some were just meeting each other for the first time, but all have common complaints about how administrators have run roughshod over faculty's attempts to monitor the quality of the college's dual credit courses.
Carolyn Davis, a North Harris political science professor, serves as unofficial spokesperson for the group. Davis chaired a faculty self-study committee specifically appointed by the college district to evaluate whether its dual credit programs could pass muster with SACS. But Davis, who's been an outspoken critic of embedded dual credit classes ever since the district began promoting them in government and history four years ago, told the SACS officials that it was impossible to confirm the academic quality of the courses because faculty are often not permitted to review them. Davis says she was told by administrators that it was not necessary for her committee to check whether faculty signed off on textbooks and syllabi, observed classes, or looked at teachers' qualifications. "We did it anyway," says Davis bluntly.
Davis says she's not against the concept of embedded dual credit classes, but questions how the college can justify giving college credit for classes that its own faculty do not approve. "We are the gatekeepers," Davis says of faculty. "If we do not want [colleges] to turn into diploma factories, or credit-churning mills, we've got to make sure there's full faith and credit in what we're doing." Davis told the SACS representatives that she spoke to college faculty who did not even realize that sections in their subject areas were being taught by high school instructors, and in one of those cases, an administrator told Davis that a faculty member had approved a course that the faculty member didn't know existed. Meanwhile, the paperwork verifying the qualifications of instructors was sometimes missing or in disarray, Davis reports.
Next to Davis sat Nancy Kral, who teaches political science at Tomball College, and who, like Davis, has spent years trying to draw the attention of state legislators and higher education officials to NH/MCCD's dual credit program. She and Davis have compiled inch-thick, laminated binders documenting the administration's determined push to establish dual credit courses in political science, history, and math in area high schools. In 1997, Tomball created a dual credit course in government, based on the course Kral teaches for Tomball, at a high school in the Cypress Fairbanks ISD. Kral refused to approve the course, saying it didn't meet college standards. A dispute arose between Kral and the Tomball administration, one in which Kral received backing from the district faculty senate. But Tomball carried on with the course anyway, even though no faculty member would approve it. Kral eventually persuaded Coordinating Board officials to inquire into Tomball's dual credit program, but the college administration reminded the board that its own rules don't explicitly say that faculty have to review dual credit classes (administrators must only guarantee that "instruction and materials" are equivalent to a college course). The college responded that an associate dean was "monitoring teaching effectiveness and course outcomes," and the matter was dropped.
Since then, Kral says, she's never been approached by Tomball administrators to approve the additional sections of government the college has established in local high schools. Faculty in her department were not even informed the courses were being created, says Kral. Kral has become a pariah among NH/MCCD administrators; she says she's heard from colleagues that higher-ups have accused her of having a "personality disorder," and during interviews for this article, district administrators wryly commented on her personal integrity. Kral, who was a high school teacher before moving into higher education 12 years ago, says she'll never be persuaded that a high school environment is conducive to true college learning. "I really am a committed educator, and I believe this is substandard education, and I'm just doing what I have to do," says Kral.
North Harris professor Tim Howard tells the SACS officials he was asked by his department to evaluate a new course in American Government that North Harris had opened at a nearby high school. But when he called the high school instructor to arrange a visit to the classroom, Howard says, the teacher told him that she wasn't allowed to let him see her class syllabus or set foot in the class. Howard said he refused to sign off on the course, then finally relented under pressure. Howard said he then received a small stipend from the college, as if he, not the high school teacher, were giving the course (high school teachers are rarely paid any compensation by community colleges for dual credit courses).
Then there's longtime history professor John Eudy, one of the original faculty members on staff when North Harris College was founded in 1972. While sharing the academic concerns voiced by Kral, Davis, and others, Eudy also delivers a scathing critique of the NH/MCCD administration under John Pickelman, who took over as chancellor in 1991. "This is the most vindictive, mendacious, pussy-footin' group of administrators I have ever experienced. ... They do not believe in faculty rights. They believe that they have all the answers. There is a two-track system: There is the faculty, and then there's the administration, and the twain don't meet unless a faculty member sells out, and then they're rewarded," Eudy told the SACS representatives.
Veteran Tomball professor Bob Eubank nods and sighs as Eudy talks. Eubank had earlier related how an associate dean had begged him to sign off on a dual credit course because the dean's "job was on the line" if he didn't set it up. Eventually, a young instructor was made chair of his department and compelled to approve the course, Eubank said. "We were treated like hell," said Eubank. "The dean later on said, 'I hate to see you put yourself on the line, Bob. The decision has already been made. This is the future,'" said Eubank.
Davis, however, bowed her head and nervously flipped through her prepared materials as Eudy spoke to the SACS reps. This was not what she wanted: the appearance that the fuss over dual credit is just an excuse for disgruntled faculty to vent years of frustration. "We're not here to say that under no conditions would we approve [embedded] dual credit courses," Davis reminds them, "but only if there are the right safeguards." (As of June 1, SACS had released no decision concerning the status of dual embedded credit courses or NH/MCCD's accreditation.)
Rough as they were, however, Eudy's comments speak to the larger conflict going on in community colleges across the state that the controversy over embedded dual credit is bringing to the fore. Eudy remembers proudly that in 1974, North Harris faculty told a Texas A&M football coach to "go fuck himself" when he requested "special consideration" for some players who'd been transferred to the junior college to improve their grades. The students were flunked out of North Harris. But community college faculty aren't in control of academic standards anymore, Eudy says: "Now those kids could be straight-A students."
Social and financial realities have changed for community colleges since the Seventies. Now they can't as easily afford to chase students away. College degrees are considered a common necessity, and the legislative pressure on colleges to produce more graduates has intensified in recent years. Community college enrollment has burgeoned over the past decade, but the state's proportional financial commitment to higher education continues to shrink, now covering only about 40% of colleges' operating expenses. During the Bush years, community colleges took another kick in the seat when the so-called "education" governor twice slashed their tax rolls. Since state funding to colleges is tied to enrollment figures, community colleges have naturally redoubled their efforts to get more bodies into the classroom. The use of embedded dual credit classes opens whole new fields of prospective recruits. "Administrations are driven by the economics of this," says Treisman. "This is a big moneymaker [for community colleges]."
The old academic order Eudy represents, on the other hand, isn't particularly conducive to solving community colleges' need for larger headcounts, not with ever-larger numbers of students showing up without basic reading and writing skills. At NH/MCCD, administrators can hardly conceal their desire to put older professors out to pasture. A retirement incentive plan circulated recently at North Harris College, and several veteran instructors have been called on the carpet in recent years for allegedly offending students or treating them unfairly. NH/MCCD Chancellor John Pickelman rolls his eyes at the mention of "senior faculty" at North Harris College during an interview. Their resistance to the embedded dual credit program is "a matter of elitism, and that's all it is," he says. Pickelman says NH/MCCD has an obligation to reach children who are at risk of missing out on a college education. "Our mission is to provide the greatest access to the people who can benefit from what we have to offer, and those might be 16- and 17-year-old kids," says Pickelman.
Pickelman dismisses the notion that money fuels NH/MCCD's interest in embedded dual credit. With one of the largest tax bases in the state, Pickelman says, the district has no need to "shake the bushes for money." "If we wanted to make this a money-making deal, we'd do what we do with every other class, and that is charge tuition," says Pickelman. But the financial benefits of embedded dual credit classes are hard to overlook. Using the district's estimate that about 2,700 students are enrolled in embedded dual credit classes, Kral and Davis calculated that the district takes in more than a million dollars per year for the classes through fees and state reimbursements. That may not look like much compared to the district's $105 million in total revenues, but the margin of difference between NH/MCCD's revenues and expenses is only a few million dollars. Plus, the amount the state reimburses for each student enrolled in a community college class is more than what the college can charge for tuition, so if dropping tuition for dual credit classes increases total enrollment, the college could conceivably come out ahead. Embedded dual credit courses are also a deal for local taxpayers, since they don't require additional staff or facilities that property taxes would have to support.
Community colleges also score points with local school districts for offering embedded dual credit courses, an important consideration in urban areas where rich school districts do have a choice in their community college district. The demand by high schools for college-level courses on their campuses is intense, says Diane Troyer, president of NH/MCCD's Cy-Fair College. "This is part of the way that schools receive their recognition from the state -- how many AP and dual credit courses they offer. ... These are the kinds of things that parents expect and school districts pride themselves on," says Troyer.
Troyer is the former president of Tomball College who in 1997 approved the embedded dual credit government class that sparked the revolt by Kral and other faculty. She argues that high schools should have the right to let their outstanding teachers with college qualifications (some of whom teach part-time for the community college district anyway, she notes) lead college-level courses, without oversight from college faculty. College faculty would never stand for having other faculty members monitor their classes, says Troyer, so why subject teachers to such scrutiny? "These are professionals who are partnering with us. I don't want it to be us versus them," says Troyer.
Pickelman doesn't dispute the claims of Kral, Davis, and others that his administrators have been ordered to override faculty objections to embedded dual credit classes and allow them to take place whether or not they've been reviewed by the pertinent faculty members. "That's not [faculty's] prerogative, where we offer courses, or who we offer courses to. Their prerogative is to join us in ensuring that those courses are of quality," says Pickelman.
In fact, Davis' committee report on dual credit classes was not included in the full self-study report the community college district sent to SACS. Davis said she was given assurances by the administrator coordinating the district study that her committee's findings would be included, but they never appeared in the printed version. Davis and her committee members had to copy, bind, and mail out their report to SACS officials themselves.
The NH/MCCD administration has honed a pitch for defending the validity of embedded dual credit that creates a noticeable echo through a series of interviews. High school students have to pass college entrance requirements and be enrolled in college before they can join the classes, they say: Only the "cream of the crop" can get in. Teachers have to be college-certified. Course content is checked to be sure it aligns with college expectations. The concept of college-level work taking place in a high-school classroom is perfectly sound, they say.
But there's plenty of evidence to show that embedded dual credit classes are not always the controlled, high-intensity environments that community colleges advertise. It's hardly a secret that many students take the courses because they know they'll be easier than taking the same course in college. "I thought it was easy," one North Harris College student says of an English class he took for college credit his senior year in high school. "I'm glad I didn't have to take it in college, where you'd have to write a 15-page paper. ... That's why I took it in high school, to avoid doing all these papers. I knew the professors in college would expect a lot more."
"It's not the same at all," says Audrey Garcia, comparing a college class she took at her high school with those she's taken at North Harris. Garcia says she had not even taken her college entrance exam when she enrolled in the course, and about half the students weren't taking the course for college credit. "It's a lot more involved in college than in high school because they expect a higher level of work."
Tim Fons, who teaches a course for college credit in the Aldine school district, says his course is harder than standard high school classes but doesn't seem much like college. "If this were all of [students'] college experience, I'd say this probably isn't all that good," says Fons. A lot of students aren't emotionally prepared for the work, he says, and not all have met college entrance criteria. High achievers commonly get frustrated by the interruptions, says Fons. Fons, who also teaches part-time at North Harris, says dual credit courses at high schools tend to function as remedial courses for kids with marginal college skills.
Another North Harris instructor reports that students in a dual credit course he taught read at a sixth-grade level and had been told to take the course by a counselor "because it was easy." An essay one professor asked a student to write about his experience taking college classes in high school was titled, "Dool Credit." Other sources report classes being taught by teachers without college credentials who don't use college syllabi, textbooks, or exams.
At a few universities, administrators are beginning to question the quality of the college credit students are transferring to them from community colleges' embedded dual credit programs. Texas A&M International provost Ray M. Keck says he "couldn't believe it" when he discovered that college credit was being awarded in a courses that also function as ordinary high school courses. "You can't possibly create a college experience doing something like that," says Keck. "You need a group of clearly superior students who are determined to meet the expectation of the college classroom."
But Keck doubts legislators will intervene on behalf of universities any time soon, noting that there are only 35 public universities in the state, but a junior college in every legislators' back yard.
Pickelman himself is one of the state's most senior community college chancellors, and a major player in the higher education lobby. NH/MCCD provides him an apartment in Austin for his frequent visits to Higher Education Coordinating Board offices and the Capitol. When asked for an opinion of dual credit courses, Board Commissioner Don Brown referred repeatedly to answers given him by Pickelman.
Eudy says the faculty who care most about the fortunes of the students in their classrooms are being ignored so that as education dollars shrink, administrators don't have to tighten their belts too much. The proliferation of embedded dual credit courses at NH/MCCD proves that faculty who stand up for academic integrity are liabilities at community colleges today, he says. "We've been insulted and demeaned and our reputation has been tossed in our faces as if it were dirt," says Eudy.
As other community colleges have promoted their embedded dual credit programs, they apparently haven't yet caused the same stir among faculty. At ACC, for example, stories exist of some shaky courses getting planned, but mentoring requirements for high school instructors teaching their first college course and workshops that prepare teachers for college expectations seemed to have pacified concerns. But ACC's dual credit program, called Early College Start, is just beginning to take off. As more and more sections are opened on high school campuses, will the college be able to keep a grip on quality?
NH/MCCD Associate Dean David Kennedy says he hopes faculty in his department who have been insulted by dual credit will eventually realize that administrators are trying to correct mistakes of the past at NH/MCCD. The process for managing dual credit has been "ill-defined and ill-understood," says Kennedy, but administrators haven't plotted to deceive faculty. "I think this been more lousy documentation and communication than anything else," says Kennedy.
Even critics of embedded dual credit acknowledge the concept holds promise for inspiring college ambitions, but they say community colleges have to apply better quality control. Frankenberger, of UT-Pan American, says he fears a wave of college dropouts may have to materialize on researchers' radar screens before anyone pays attention to the weaknesses of dual credit. "Right now, all of the incentives are to drive numbers, and not to drive quality. It's as simple as that," he says.
Perhaps, too, the state legislature will eventually conclude that even if higher education standards have eroded, they just aren't willing to buy any more academic quality. Frankenberger recalls meetings that the UT-Pan American president has had with the local community college, asking the college to discontinue embedded dual credit courses because they didn't have appropriate books and technology available to students.
"They've said, 'No thanks, we'll let the marketplace decide'" if we should continue them, says Frankenberger.