As an ambitious high school freshman in Illinois, Jasmin Wilson had a simple goal: rack up enough college credits to earn a two-year degree before she was 18.
Then her family moved to Michigan, and now that goal is out of the question. A tangle of state laws makes it hard for high schoolers to take classes at local colleges, an approach known to boost college graduation rates, even as lawmakers worry that too few Michiganders hold college degrees.
Those laws mean that students like Wilson cannot get an associate degree before graduation, unlike their peers in neighboring states.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Wilson, now an 18-year-old senior at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “There shouldn’t be a limit on how many courses you can take. I feel like they’re limiting students.”
A growing body of research suggests that the standard U.S. educational timeline — four years of high school followed, ideally, by four years of college — is badly out of date. So-called dual enrollment provides a major boost to rates of college enrollment, college and high school graduation, and even students’ academic performance in high school, according to a review of the evidence by federal education officials.
Many districts are recognizing the appeal of dual enrollment. Earlier this week, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced plans to help more students take courses at a local community college.
But Michigan puts unusually strict limits on dual enrollment, capping the number of college courses students can take while attending high school at 10. The availability of such programs across the state is also limited by a funding system that requires Michigan’s already cash-strapped school districts to pay for dual enrollment courses, leading to gaps in access across the state.
Some education leaders are urging lawmakers to make dual enrollment easier.
“There’s a lot of positive things here,” said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Directors, referring to dual enrollment. “We haven’t in this state caught up to the rest of the nation.”
Although the number of participants in Michigan has grown in recent years, the rate of dual enrollment remains lower than advocates would like, with fewer than 1 in 6 Michigan high schoolers taking classes for college credit, Miller said. (Thousands more take Advanced Placement classes, which can also lead to college credit.)
More than 2 million U.S. high schoolers participate today, including 81,000 students in Michigan, and that number is growing. Early middle colleges — high schools that offer college courses in-house — have also expanded.
Yet Dave Dugger, executive director of the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium, worries that the number of students enrolling in dual enrollment in Michigan could be slowing down.
Although some influential policymakers have expressed interest in dual enrollment, the idea hasn’t developed the popular support necessary to drive a major change to the deeply ingrained timeline on which American education is based.
“We’re a time-based system,” he said. “Everyone filters education through their educational experience, which tends to be 30 years behind the times.”
Dugger has spent the last 25 years creating dual enrollment programs and helping educational organizations build their own. He says it’s just common sense to allow motivated high school students to take the more challenging coursework offered in college.
And as advocates often point out, there are plenty of other perks.
By accumulating college credits in high school, students can save money on tuition, no small matter at a time when Michigan families are paying more than ever for college. The classes prepare them for the fast pace of college work. And crucially, they shorten the path to a college degree, increasing the odds that students will end up with a credential.
That fact alone might be enough to win a powerful ally in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who focused her State of the State address on Michigan’s relatively low rate of college completion.
“Dual enrollment becomes a contributor to increasing education attainment in the state,” said Doug Ross, Whitmer’s newly appointed senior advisor on higher education attainment and economic development. “As the full strategy is laid out for moving from roughly 43 percent [of Michiganders age 25 to 65 with a college degree] to 60 percent in the next decade, dual enrollment is an issue that will come on the table early in the process.”
The cap was put in place in 2005 to ensure that school districts wouldn’t be forced to pay too much for college courses. Districts don’t have to promote dual enrollment, but they can’t opt out of it, either.
The legislature has shown little interest in lifting the cap — the last effort to do so passed the state senate last year but did not pass the house. No bills introduced in the legislature this session would lift limits on dual enrollment, Miller said.
The problem that the cap sets out to solve could be fixed, in theory, with a carrot. Miller says the state should send extra funding to school districts who otherwise would have trouble making the case for dual enrollment.
But that proposal could run into trouble in the statehouse. The Republican legislature has voiced skepticism about new spending, while the Democratic governor is trying to find revenue for several major initiatives at once.
Sarah Anthony, a newly elected Democratic state representative from Lansing (her district does not include Michigan State University), is tired of waiting for people to grasp the stakes of this debate.
While lawmakers fail to come up with a solution, she said, far too few students are completing college. The effects are especially pronounced on students who, like her, are the first in their family to attend college.
“As you sit in some of these rooms, sometimes you have to step back and say, who’s looking out for students and families?” she said.