Inequities in Dual Credit Programs: Challenges and Solutions in Illinois Schools


As the pursuit of higher education becomes increasingly expensive, more students in Illinois are turning to dual credit programs, aiming to accumulate college credits during their high school years. However, a recent study sheds light on concerning disparities in the adoption of these programs, revealing widening gaps among racial, economic, and geographic groups.

(Photo : UNSPLASH / Kenny Eliason)

Growing Popularity of Dual Credit

Dual credit courses, allowing students to earn credits towards both their high school diploma and a college degree simultaneously, have gained popularity across Illinois high schools. The allure of cost savings and early exposure to college-level coursework has contributed to the surge in participation. Yet, beneath the surface, the study by the Illinois Workforce & Education Research Collaborative (IWERC) uncovers troubling trends.

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Disparities in Participation

The study indicates that dual credit programs are more prevalent in districts serving rural communities and small towns in downstate Illinois than in urban and suburban districts. Furthermore, these opportunities are less accessible in districts serving minority and lower-income students. Even within districts, enrollment and completion rates reveal disparities, with white and affluent students outpacing their minority and lower-income counterparts.

Influence of Partnership Agreements

Dual credit courses typically result from partnerships between high schools and postsecondary institutions, with community colleges being the primary providers. The study emphasizes the impact of these partnership agreements on the courses offered and suggests that disparities may be rooted in how community college districts manage the associated costs. Such costs, although shared between the college and school district, can vary based on the specifics of each partnership.

Legislative Initiatives and Funding

Illinois lawmakers have taken steps to enhance the accessibility and affordability of dual credit programs. Legislation like the Dual Credit Quality Act and the Education Workforce Equity Act reflects this commitment, aiming to make these programs more inclusive. Additionally, the state budget allocates funds to community colleges to lower the overall cost of dual credit programs, showcasing a concerted effort to support students pursuing these opportunities.

Widening Disparities Despite Efforts

Despite these legislative initiatives and financial support, the study reveals that while overall participation in dual credit programs has grown, disparities have widened. The growth rates for students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds lag behind their white and more affluent peers. This suggests that the intended benefits of dual credit programs, particularly in reducing economic and racial disparities, are not being fully realized.

Root Causes and Solution

Sarah Cashdollar, an IWERC researcher, points to pre-high school enrollment in accelerated coursework as a significant predictor for racial gaps in dual credit participation. This suggests that early educational tracking plays a pivotal role in shaping students' perceptions of themselves as college-bound. The report recommends continued investment in efforts to make dual credit programs more accessible and affordable. However, it underscores the importance of focusing these efforts on districts with the lowest participation rates, especially in urban and suburban areas.

As Illinois grapples with the challenges and disparities in dual credit participation, it is crucial to reassess strategies, ensuring that the benefits of these programs are equitably distributed. The study's findings emphasize the need for targeted interventions in districts with lower participation rates, emphasizing inclusivity and breaking down barriers that hinder certain demographic groups. Only through concerted efforts and a commitment to addressing these disparities can dual credit programs truly fulfill their potential as a tool for reducing inequities in postsecondary educational attainment.

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