MCALLEN, RGV – Dr. Shirley A. Reed, president of South Texas College, says her pioneering work in developing a robust dual credit program with high schools in Hidalgo and Starr counties has been vindicated by a new study from the UT System.

The UT System looked at the outcomes of approximately 135,000 students who entered a UT academic institution between 2010 and 2015 and tracked the students for six years.

Findings of the study include:

  • Dual credit students are two times more likely than students entering college with no dual credit to graduate in four years.
  • Among students who graduate in four years, dual credit students, on average, graduate one semester earlier compared to students with no prior college credit.
  • Students reported that dual credit provides early exposure to college that benefited them when taking college courses after graduating from high school.
  • Dual credit does not significantly reduce student loan debt when taking into account students’ financial aid, unless students enter with at least 60 or more semester credit hours.

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Dr. Reed said there have actually been two recent studies about dual credit. She said the other one, commissioned by the Higher Education Coordinating Board and conducted by the American Institute for Research, said much the same thing: that dual credit programs are tremendously beneficial to students.

“The reports show that, lo and behold, those students were retained and graduated at a higher rate than students without dual credit. They had higher GPAs (grade point averages) and they ended up graduating with less credit hours because they already have so much dual,” Reed said.

“This is what we have been saying from the beginning and when UT-Pan American did their study maybe seven or eight years ago we were hearing the same thing.”

Dual credit programs allow high school students to enroll in college courses and receive simultaneous academic course credit for both college and high school. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, more than 151,000 Texas high school students took dual credit courses in 2017 compared to 42,000 in 2000 – an increase of 753 percent.

“UT System academic institutions are experiencing a tsunami of incoming college credit produced by dual credit programs within Texas, and it’s more important than ever that we have empirical data to show the effect dual credit is having on students’ college experiences,” said David Troutman, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor and study lead at the UT System’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. 

“The good news is, the data show dual credit programs are having a significant and positive impact on student retention and student performance – even more so than we realized.”

For example, students who successfully complete just one dual credit class in high school are more likely to stay in college and graduate, compared to students who didn’t take dual credit, Troutman said.

Academic rigor

Working with high schools in Hidalgo and Starr counties, STC has dual credit programs that are helping 12,000 students get early exposure to a college going culture. Indeed, over the past ten years, STC has been the pioneer in the field. And, because the program first blossomed in the Rio Grande Valley, outsiders questioned its validity. Over the years, Reed has been quizzed about the academic rigor of dual credit but has always held her ground.

“There was a lot of push back on this concept of dual credit and in the (UT System) report there is a statement that I just love. It says, ‘students report that dual credit has a positive impact on their college experience, while at the same time faculty, advisors, and enrollment managers from UT System institutions voice concerns about the quality and rigor of dual credit opportunities offered in Texas.’  

“So, is it really about what is good for students and their families or is it about what is good for faculty and higher ed institutions? The (UT System) report clearly shows the students are successful and don’t give me all that baloney about questionable rigor. It is the same course, the same syllabi, the same everything as if you were here on campus taking the course. The same standards and we monitor that very, very, closely. So, I am not surprised (by the findings of the report). I’m really not.”

Asked if she gets tired defending dual credit, Reed said: “I get weary defending it. I get to the point where I don’t defend it. I just say, it is, so what are we going to do about it? It is sort of like, you are never going to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It is out of the tube. People expect it. Students are doing well. It is a new norm for higher ed that is scaring the heebie-jeebies out of four-year institutions.”

The conclusion of the UT System report states:

The analysis of dual credit at UT academic institutions presents a complex story that includes personal and philosophical differences about whether high school students should take college courses. Students report that dual credit has a positive impact on their college experience, while at the same time faculty, advisors, and enrollment managers from UT System institutions voice concerns about the quality and rigor of dual credit opportunities offered in Texas.

Aside from the varying perspectives—derived from quantitative and qualitative analyses—the outcomes data reveal that students benefit from taking dual credit in high school. Overall, students’ exposure to even one dual credit course has a positive impact on student success outcomes. More time and research are needed to understand better how dual credit programs can personalize the dual credit experience (number of hours and type of courses) and maximize timely graduation and success based on students’ future interests and academic goals. The report provides findings for each of the focus areas and recommendations to consider going forward.

Asked about the other report on dual credit, conducted by the American Institute for Research, Reed said:

“It was kind of the same (as the UT System’s) only it was much more in-depth and more research-based. What it ended up doing was providing information on some very general categories such student outcomes, how much does it cost, what is the difference in ethnic groups, what is the role in advising and what is the academic rigor. As I understand it, the intent is, this report has been posted, they are accepting public comment until the end of August and then the Coordinating Board will use this report as the basis for some policy recommendations, perhaps legislative recommendations. But, this one is a comprehensive look at dual credit students all over, as opposed to the Texas one, which is just those that went to UT institutions.”

Legislative fixes

Asked if she expects a lot of legislation during the next legislative session related to dual credit, Reed said:

“There are issues regarding dual credit. One is the tremendous differences in the models all across the state. Hidalgo and Starr counties are our service areas as well as our taxing district, so we really can grow and expand this program, waive tuition, do what we think we need to do to make it a success. But, in other parts of Texas, community colleges are charging full tuition or discounted tuition. They are kind of in conflict over which community college is going to serve which high schools. There are a lot of issues. Plus, if we are going to move in the direction of either not charging or reducing the tuition for dual credits students, we are going to need some sort of funding mechanism to do that. That is part of the issue.”

Reed said she is “very optimistic” the legislature will “very quickly recognize” there is much more benefit than liability with dual credits. 

“These dual credit students – if we do not do it while they are in high school they are just going to have larger numbers coming into the universities and the community colleges even less prepared. Or not go at all. That is our big fear, that students will not go to college at all. We have learned –  and remember, we have been doing this for over ten years now – the students experience success, it motivates them, it motivates their friends, they really feel encouraged and empowered, knowing in high school, I can go to college and I can be a success in college, and without the tuition waiver, they could never afford it.”

Asked if it was still the case that large numbers of Valley students are the first in their family to go to college, Reed said: “Absolutely. Even if these students only take a few courses, they are still way ahead of the game. They have had some positive experiences going to college.”

Next steps

Reed said STC is now looking at the next steps for dual credit. She said that probably means doing more career and technology dual credit programs. 

“We do not have much in place right now but we are certainly looking at how can we expand this. Maybe students can get basic skills in a career field, such as welding, diesel, automotive, manufacturing, while in high school, to be more prepared to go into the workforce if they choose not to continue on and earn a degree from a community college or a technical college. We do not plan to slow down.”

Asked if the Valley is still No. 1 for dual credit, Reed said:

“San Antonio has a very large program, they are very close to ours. They have an outstanding program. We have been the pioneers, we have been doing it right and in many ways we’re convinced we are the model for how to do it. Not everybody agrees with us. That is just fine. They can go do it the way they believe it needs to be done but we are sticking by our model here in South Texas.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Dr. Shirley A. Reed, president of South Texas College.