One of the most prolific trends in the past 20 years has been the exponential growth of dual credit students who are earning college-level credits while still attending high school. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) reported that more than 186,000 students were officially enrolled in dual credit courses across all institutions in Texas in fall 2021, with 92% of dual credit students enrolled at Texas public community colleges. With dual credit students comprising an ever-increasing proportion of enrollments at two-year campuses, this blog post seeks to better understand the magnitude of dual credit enrollment at public community colleges nationally and across states in the past two decades.
Dual Credit Enrollment Trends
A formidable challenge when trying to make national comparisons of dual credit enrollment is the lack of a standardized data source. Following the methodology used by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, we used the number of students “under the age of 18” enrolled during the fall semester at community colleges as a proxy for dual credit enrollment (IPEDS Data). We will use the “under 18” designation and “dual credit” students interchangeably in the discussion below.
According to the CCRC’s enrollment dashboard, there were just over 201,000 “under 18” students at community colleges in 1997. By 2021, that number increased more than 400% to 1.05 million dual credit students. For context, the CCRC reports that total enrollment at community colleges nationwide during that time period increased by just 12%. This means that in 2021, nearly 1-out-of-every-5 community college students in America was a dual credit student.
Texas Leads in Dual Credit Enrollment
As can be seen in the top visualization below, Texas has long been the leader in the number of high school-aged students attending community colleges as dual credit students. From 2001 to 2021, the “under 18” group of students at public community colleges in Texas increased by almost 500% from 29K to 171K. In fall 2021, Texans made up more than 16% of the total number of dual credit students in America, with California second at 11% of the nationwide total. By way of comparison, California had 50,000 fewer “under 18” students (120K) at community colleges than Texas in the 2021 IPEDS data, while New York had just under 56K and Florida had just over 45K total dual credit students enrolled in 2021.
Note: Even though the “under the age of 18” definition excludes students who are actually 18-years-old when they enroll during the fall semester, it provides the most comprehensive proxy to examine trends in dual credit. In the case of Texas, the 171,251 total “under 18” students reported in the IPEDS data differed by only 100 students from the THECB’s published “dual credit” student enrollment of 171,151 at public community colleges in Texas in fall 2021. Additionally, IPEDS only requires submission of age-related data every other year, which explains the gap in data points on the “even” years in the visualizations below.
The bottom visualization shows what percentage “under 18” students comprised in terms of total undergraduate enrollment at public community colleges. In 2001, dual credit students accounted for 5.6% of the total enrollment at public two-year colleges nationally, with that percentage increasing to 18.3% in 2021. By comparison, the dual credit percentage in Texas increased by almost 19 percentage points from 6.9% in 2001 to 25.7% in 2021, ranking Texas 15th in fall 2021 when compared to the other states in America. Notable state-level comparisons in fall 2021 were New York (23.8%, ranked 17th overall), Florida (12.2%, ranked 40th overall), and California (9.8%, ranked 43rd overall).
Overlaying a simple trend line on these data would seem to indicate that almost one-third of all community college students in Texas will be dual credit students within the next decade. The vast numbers of dual credit students in Texas is certainly an important component in conversations about the future of higher education in Texas. However, viewing enrollment trend data is only part of the story. Proponents of dual credit programs tout benefits such as increased high school graduation rates and greater enrollment, success, and completion at the college level (US Department of Education). We will tackle the more complex issue of outcomes for dual credit students in the next blog post in this series.