ANIKEN CASTANEDA took his first college course, art history, in the summer before his freshman year in high school. He liked the idea of being a college student, he said, and his parents told him it would give him a head start on a degree.
"It was kind of cool to be ahead of everybody," he recalled.
And he didn't stop there. By the time Castaneda graduated from Mercedes High School, in Mercedes, Texas, he had amassed 30 credits, enough to bypass of full a year of college. He hopes to complete his bachelor's degree at Sam Houston State University in just two years.
"I'm taking as many classes as possible because its free and it's something my parents won't have to worry about and pay for," he said.
Castaneda is part of a dual credit boom that is taking place in Texas and nationally, as states seek ways to get more students into and through college with less debt. The trend may be accelerated by the move to distance learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as taking an online college course instead of a high school course becomes as simple as just clicking to open a different hyperlink while sitting at the same home computer.
Between the 2002-3 and 2010-11 academic years, the number of high school students taking college courses for credit increased by 68 percent, to nearly 1.4 million, the latest federal data shows (see Figure 1). By 2015, nearly 70 percent of high schools offered dual enrollment, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In Texas, the number of students participating in the program grew by 753 percent between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2017.
The explosion has been a boon for the nation's community colleges, which have seen adult enrollments plummet since the end of the last recession. At some two-year colleges, high school students now make up half of enrollments, according to The American Association of Community Colleges.
The rise of dual credit has benefitted students, too. Research shows that students who take dual credit courses are more likely to enroll in and complete college than students who don't--and to finish faster, too. A few studies have found disproportionate benefits for low-income students.
"When a student successfully completes a dual credit course, their mindset changes," said Michael Villarreal, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied the impact of dual credit. "They see that they can do college level coursework--that they are college material."
Christian Martinez, the valedictorian at Mercedes High School, said taking dual credit courses gave him the confidence that he could succeed in medical school.
"I don't feel too anxious for college," he said. "Once I knew I could commit myself to my studies, I knew I could do it in long run."
Dual enrollment is creating some financial challenges for four-year colleges, which depend on large lecture-based introductory courses to subsidize more expensive upper-level offerings and to recruit students to majors. With...