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EPOL doctoral student Jason Taylor integral part of HLC study on dual credit state policies

by The College of Education  /   Mar 22, 2013

Jason Taylor, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, was one of three graduate student interns selected by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) to study dual credit state policies related to quality assurance. The three interns have been working with Professor Victor Borden at Indiana University since January 2012—you could say they ate, breathed, and slept dual credit for the better part of 2012.

The group will present the final results at the HLC Annual Conference on April 8, and the formal report was made public this month. The HLC is responsible for evaluating and vouching for the quality of all higher education course credit and credentials offered by the institutions that it accredits, including dual credit.

Taylor is also a graduate research assistant for the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL). He said the HLC, with support from five other regional accreditors and funding from the Lumina Foundation, hired three advanced graduate students (as part of an internship focused on dual credit) and a faculty member to examine the intersection of dual credit and quality in all 50 states.

"Through his work at OCCRL, Jason gained a strong background in transition-to-college policy issues, including dual credit, which certainly positioned him well for this internship opportunity," said Debra Bragg, professor and director of OCCRL. "We were thrilled that he received this opportunity from the HLC. There is no question that he deepened his knowledge and experience as a policy researcher through his internship with HLC."

Taylor said the regional accrediting agencies have an inherent interest in quality since they are responsible for ensuring that trait in colleges and universities. "Quality can be a controversial term because it means different things to different people," Taylor said, "but from the regional accreditation perspective, there are clear standards institutions must adhere to… historically these include standards related to institutional mission, institutional governance, faculty credentials, academic resources, student support resources and more recently, those related to program assessment and student learning outcomes."

When talking to Taylor about the group's work, he is quick to point out the definition of dual credit that was of most interest to the commission: "college-level courses taken by high school students at the high school location that exclude exam-based courses like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate."

Dual credit, known as dual enrollment and concurrent enrollment in some states, is not a new concept. It has been around since the 1950s, "but they (dual credit offerings) emerged more prominently in the 1980s and 1990s as states began to develop policies and the idea spread throughout the nation," Taylor explained. They have especially gained momentum in the last decade.

The Illinois Community College Board estimates that dual credit participation in Illinois increased from about 40,000 students in 2004 to 65,000 students in 2008. "In Texas, the number of students increased from about 15,000 students in 2000 to nearly 90,000 students in 2010, and we see similar trends in other states, although not all states," Taylor said.

Dual credit courses are attractive because they offer students an opportunity to get a head start on college. "It is often claimed that dual credit helps students finish college faster, pay less tuition, and even encourages desirable educational outcomes like higher college GPAs, college persistence, and college completion," Taylor said. "We have only a small body of social science evidence that dual credit actually contributes to these outcomes, but I think there is accumulating evidence that dual credit is beneficial to students in these ways," Taylor said, whose dual credit research naturally complements his studies as a Ph.D. student.

Bragg, who is also Taylor's academic adviser, agrees that his internship and studies do not live independently of each other. "Interestingly enough, Jason has continued to pursue the most important policy questions related to dual credit through his doctoral dissertation," Bragg said, "where he is studying the impact of dual credit on college enrollment and completion, including determining the impact of dual credit on college outcomes for underserved student populations."

Taylor said that what his HLC team found was not particularly surprising: that some states have more comprehensive dual credit policy than other states. He said at one end of the spectrum, they found eight states that require, incentivize, or strongly encourage colleges and universities to receive a special accreditation status (NACEP accreditation) for all dual credit courses. "This is a high bar for colleges and universities and one that is resource intensive. Other state policies were still quite prescriptive and mandated student eligibility based on ACT or SAT scores, placement test scores, and students’ grade level, as well as other quality assurance mechanisms such as faculty teaching qualifications and procedures for ensuring courses are ‘rigorous’ college courses, for example," Taylor said.

He said on the flipside, "Some state policies simply have little or nothing to say about what students are eligible to participate, who can teach dual credit, program assessment, or simply left these decisions to local colleges and universities," Taylor explained. "In our interviews with state leaders, it was not uncommon to hear that there were unwritten expectations that colleges and universities treat dual credit courses similarly to campus-based courses and adhere to regional accreditation standards," Taylor said.

The team's findings are in the hands of the HLC now, and the commission will determine how and if it will use the report to modify accreditation policy. "One implication that we raise is that regional accreditors accredit institutions and programs and not individual courses," Taylor explained. But as high school students increasingly take more individual dual credit courses on high school campuses, the high school location will become the instructional delivery site for a larger share of students’ postsecondary credits and potential subject to accreditation visits, according to Taylor.

So what does this mean for high school and college partnerships that offer college-level courses on the high school campus?

"Perhaps accreditation agencies determine that state policy is an adequate mechanism to ensure quality, or perhaps there is another approach needed," Taylor said. "In fact, the HLC released new standards in 2012 and for the first time we have seen 'dual credit' explicitly embedded in the standards."

Regardless, it seems dual credit is here to stay, and Taylor played an integral part in looking at its future.