Taking college courses while in high school has its perks: Students are introduced to rigorous course work early, have less debt, are more likely to stay in college and tend to graduate early.
The promise of dual-credit courses, however, can come with a catch — valuable college credits that can be lost when students move on to universities.
State law requires all public Texas universities to accept dual-credit courses — college classes that high school students typically take from a nearby community college. But when students enroll in four-year institutions, they sometimes find that dual-credit classes count only as electives, and universities might not accept the classes to fulfill a specific degree requirement.
The result: Some students are spending longer in college, and more money on tuition, than they expected.
“If I have another call about a state institution — one of our, quote, finer ones here — that says, ‘Oh, they count towards your total hours, but they don’t count toward your degree plan,’ I’m done with those agencies … as they currently exist, because that is just wrong,” state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said during a recent Senate Education Committee hearing.
“It sends a lie. It pulls the rug out from the kid and the parent that had expectations,” Perry said, prompting agreement from other lawmakers.
A recent study showed that a cohort of graduates from Texas early-college high schools — a specialized program in which students can earn up to 60 hours of dual credit — lost an average of 27 percent of expected credit upon enrolling in college.
Policy analysts expect the problem to widen as the number of high school students taking dual-credit courses continues to rise. Last fall, 133,342 high school students took at least one dual-credit course, 11 times the number in 1999.
One common cause for lost credit is students’ changing majors after entering college. Researchers said instituting a statewide agreement among higher education institutions specifying the types of courses that must be accepted toward degree plans, and better advising in high school, could mitigate the problem.
Brychan Johnson-Jackson graduated from LBJ High School’s early-college program in North Austin last May. When she enrolled as a computer engineering technology major at Prairie View A&M University, almost a dozen dual-credit courses didn’t apply to her degree.
She’ll have to stay a year longer than she originally planned and find a way to pay for it.
“Since not all my credits apply to my major, I’ll still be graduating in four years,” Johnson-Jackson said. “It’s been frustrating.”
According to an October report by the Bryan-based Greater Texas Foundation, on average, 48 of 66 college-level credits earned by about 225 of its early-college high school graduate scholarship recipients had applied to degree programs at the students’ universities.
Wynn Rosser, the foundation’s president, said students lose credit when they change majors and when they receive poor advice in high school. A lack of a statewide “articulation agreement” ensuring that certain credits are honored and applied to majors regardless of the institution also contributes to the problem, he said.
“The state of Tennessee has a really good example of where they have articulated degree programs statewide, where you can begin at any community college and finish at any public state university — and they can explain it to you in a page and a half,” Rosser said. “It’s transparent.”
The foundation supports early-college high schools, which are typically geared toward low-income, first-generation college students.
There are 154 such schools across the state, including three in Austin, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Rosser said the loss of credit is a serious problem but shouldn’t diminish the overall benefits of taking college-level courses.
High school students losing college credit is an extension of a problem that college transfer students have endured for years. A study by Jenna Cullinane, a higher education policy analyst at the University of Texas’ Dana Center, found that, on average, college students who transfer lose about eight hours of credit.
Her calculations show that Texas taxpayers spend about $60 million on lost credits by college students annually. Students spend an additional $58 million to make up for lost credits annually.
“When students lose credit because they don’t apply to their major when they transfer, they get discouraged, and we know that might lead to dropout. It also costs them money and time to replace credits,” Cullinane said. “It’s a pretty critical issue.”
The state has tried to address lost credit over the past five years.
In 2011, Texas public institutions were required to adopt a revised core curriculum, plus curricula for eight specific fields, that must be accepted by other institutions. However, students can take a variety of classes under the core curriculum, and again, sometimes the classes do not fulfill specific requirements of degree plans.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is refining the eight field curricula to address the credit loss issue.
Researchers say credit transferability becomes less of an issue when high school students attend a college in their region, where articulation agreements are more likely among institutions.
Shania Williams, the 2015 valedictorian of LBJ’s early-college program, said only about a dozen of 71 dual-credit hours did not transfer for the biology degree she is pursuing at UT — and many of the lost credits were from classes she took for fun.
Williams, who will graduate early in 2018 and hopes to enter medical school, said she made sure she was taking the right classes by checking UT’s requirements for her major, and she recommended that students do not leave course selections up to their high school counselors.
Both Williams and Johnson-Jackson said that even with the loss of credits, taking dual-credit courses has given them a head start compared with their peers.
“Taking college courses since the ninth grade, I had four years to prepare me for a four-year college,” Williams said. “That has helped me tremendously.”
Tips for avoiding college credit loss
• Seek out high-quality college advising while in high school to identify career interests.
• Commit to a major and university early.
• Research degree requirements at your desired university. Departments often list them on their website.
• Attend a college in the same region as your high school. Area institutions often have articulation agreements that reduce the likelihood of credit loss.
• Visit the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s website (www.thecb.state.tx.us) for more information about statewide transfer policies.
Source: Policy analysts and students