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Opening Doors: Ensuring Access to Advanced Coursework in High Schools

This pillar is a part of the Pathways to Progress: A Federal Roadmap for College and Career Pathways.

The standard curricula can be limiting for young people in high school. Though they prepare students to meet high school graduation requirements, their structures rarely emulate those of postsecondary education. As a result, schools, states, and the federal government have invested considerable resources in developing and supporting advanced coursework that better prepares young people for postsecondary education and, in the best-case scenarios, offer them an opportunity to earn postsecondary credits while in high school.

There is considerable evidence that advanced courses through Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate Programme, early college high school courses, and dual enrollment both accelerate and strengthen student learning and their college preparation should they choose to attend.1Cecilia Speroni, ‘Determinants of Students Success: The Role of Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment Programs.” (New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research, 2011). Such courses and programs challenge high school students to reach higher levels of academic achievement and engage in more rigorous and intellectually stimulating content. This exposure helps learners develop critical thinking skills while enhancing college readiness.

In addition to the academic benefits, there are considerable benefits for participants as they can often save time and money on college courses and access additional merit-based financial aid from institutions. Most importantly, challenging coursework helps students develop a love for lifelong learning.

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement (AP) is the most commonly offered and well-known advanced course offering in the nation’s high schools. Each AP course is modeled after an introductory college course. All participants get exposure to an expanded academic rigor and courses focused on depth versus breadth of instruction and subject matter focus. Those whose final test scores exceed thresholds determined by their institution of higher education also receive college credit and, at times, can move from introductory courses to those focused on their interests and majors sooner.

Data show that students who successfully earn AP credit in high school outperform their non-AP peers both in their Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) and their grade point averages in their first semesters of college.2Timothy P. Scott, Homer Tolson, and Yi-Hsuan Lee, ‘Assessment of Advanced Placement Participation and University Academic Success in the First Semester: Controlling for Selected High School Academic Abilities.” (Alexandria, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling, Journal of College Admission, 2010).

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program offers learners three types of learning programs. The Diploma Program is a two-year program for high school juniors and seniors. The focus is on academic learning with six subject groups, core components, and an extended essay similar to a college thesis. The Career-Related Program is one to two years and combines academics with vocational learning. Participants take diploma program courses and complete a project showcasing the skills and knowledge learned in a real-world context. The third option is to take IB-level courses without working toward either of the credentials. All three require a final exam for each class, and successful completion generally leads to college credit, including at international institutions.

In the United States, 85% of Diploma Program students enrolled in college immediately after high school, compared to 66% of all high school graduates.3Aliya Pilchen, Kyra Caspary, and Katrina Woodworth, ‘Postsecondary Outcomes of IB Diploma Programme Graduates in the U.S.’ (Menlo Park, CA: SRI International, 2019). Diploma Program students are also more likely than other students to persist and continue to a second year of college.

Early College Options

Early college can take many forms. Dual and concurrent enrollment programs allow students to earn high school and college credit from a single course. The structure of such programs can vary widely from location to location and even from course to course. For some, their high school teachers receive special training and can offer their courses in their classrooms. Others take courses via online synchronous or asynchronous classes. Some attend their college-level classes on a college campus. Regardless, participants earn college credit, and many leave high school with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Like dual and concurrent enrollment programs, Early College High Schools allow students to receive both a high school diploma and up to two years worth of college credit, which for some means an associate degree. Moreover, many participants in Early College High Schools begin in the ninth grade to complete the traditional six years of study in four and take fewer high school-level classes to accommodate this.

The benefits of early college are present both during high school and beyond. One in five participants graduate from high school with an associate degree or higher.[i] Graduates of early college high schools are significantly more likely to enroll in high school after college. Nearly two thirds (63%) were enrolled in college compared to just a quarter (23%) of comparison students.

Equity Matters

Equity Matters: Advanced coursework can only be successful for a learner if they can access the options. The Center for American Progress describes an AP funnel where learners need (1) access to AP coursework, (2) identification and enrollment in courses, (3) engagement and funding for examinations, and (4) teacher and student support. This is true across advanced course options. a

Schools must have the resources and partnerships to offer these options. Often, location is the largest barrier. For example, students enrolled in rural schools have far less access to advanced coursework. Only 53% of schools in rural areas offer AP courses in any subject compared to 72% in small towns, 85% in suburbs, and 78% in cities.b4Graham, Suzanne E. “Students in Rural Schools Have Limited Access to Advanced Mathematics Courses.” (New Hampshire: Carsey Institute, 2009). 

However, underresourced schools in all locales face the same challenge of offering such courses to their students. Relationships with institutions of higher education (IHEs) may be limited, resulting in few advanced courses that meet students’ needs and interests. Other times, the need to get to a college campus to take the course shuts out some learners.

At times, schools and districts have the will and resources to provide such opportunities for their students but do not have the workforce to sustain them. Teacher workforce shortages are exacerbated by the increased requirements and certifications to teach things like dual credit courses.

Notably, the opportunity gaps across K12 education are present in advanced coursework offerings as well. While the number of students taking advanced coursework has steadily grown, for historically marginalized groups, the growth rate lags others. For those who do get access to the work, limited preparation, and continued support for the rigor of the work ahead of time means that their successful completion rates are lower than those of their peers.

Direct funding for learners is central to equitable access. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia offer help for students from low-income families for their AP examinations. However, only six fully fund exams for all students from low-income families, 13 fully fund those who are also public-school students, and the remaining 15 only partially pay for the exams.c  This means that many fully capable students who could pass their AP exams and potentially receive college credit are denied the opportunity because of a $97 exam fee. This means that the learner would then have to wait to take a course at an IHE at a far greater cost to get credit for their learning.

Pathways in Technology Early College (P-TECH) High Schools high schools are a specific type of early college high school where students earn an industry-recognized credential alongside their high school diploma. Built in partnership with the New York city department of education, the City University of New York (CUNY), and IBM, P-TECH launched its first school in 2011. Now, over 300 schools across the globe use the model and partner with over 600 businesses, highlighting the power of systems alignment between k-12, higher education, and business.

Linked Learning is an approach to high school that integrates college and career readiness through four key components: rigorous academics aligned to admissions requirements for state colleges and universities, career technical education, work-based learning, and comprehensive support services. The approach was piloted in nine California school districts in 2009 and is now being implemented in 17 other states. Program evaluations find Linked Learning leads to positive outcomes in several areas, from high school credit accumulation to postsecondary enrollment.

Dual credit courses have many benefits but are often inaccessible to students. Alongside the challenges that are true across advanced coursework offerings, some are unique to dual credit programs. Transportation costs for those who are required to attend class on a college campus or lack of home internet keep many students out.

For many undocumented students, the courses are completely inaccessible. Many states have created grant programs that cover the costs of dual enrollment courses, including registration fees, books, and more. However, unlike K12 schools, many require participants to be US citizens. This requirement keeps immigrant students out, and for undocumented students can create fear and danger for themselves and their families as their status becomes public.

Promising Policy & Programs:

Proposed Legislation:

Advanced Coursework Equity Act(S. 3279, H.R. 6328): This bill authorizes $800 million to expand access to advanced coursework.

Fast Track To And Through College Act(S.1719 (117th Congress): This bipartisan measure aims to increase college completion and reduce college costs by redesigning senior year of high school for academically prepared students, aligning secondary and postsecondary coursework, improving postsecondary credit transfer, and allowing federal Pell Grants to cover dual-enrollment costs for eligible students.

Hispanic Education Resources and Empowerment (HERE) Act (S. 2813, H.R. 5469): This bill authorizes grants to partnerships between Hispanic-serving institutions of higher education and school districts serving large populations of Hispanic students to increase college preparation and degree attainment.

Jumpstart on College Act (S.2814, H.R. 5474): This would expand dual enrollment and early college programs and empower high school juniors and seniors to take college courses and earn college credit. This bicameral legislation would make college more affordable by reducing the number of courses needed at a two- or four-year institution where students would pay per credit hour.

Making Education Affordable and Accessible Act (S.1092): This would help increase high school and college graduation rates by expanding existing grants to include dual and concurrent enrollment programs. This bipartisan legislation supports various paths to college credit and gives more young people the skill to compete in tomorrow’s job market.

Promoting Readiness in Education to Prevent Additional Remediation and Expense (PREPARE) Act (S. 1516, 116th Congress): This aims to more closely align high school education to the expectations of postsecondary education to reduce postsecondary remediation rates.

STEM Pathways Through College Act(H.R. 8231): This would require the Department of Education to award competitive grants to increase the number of students accessing and completing postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics pathways.

Federal Programs:

Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): The flexibility created under ESSA allows federal funds to be allocated to support advanced coursework in high schools.

Tite I: Title I of ESEA provides financial assistance to local educational agencies and schools with high numbers of percentages of students from low-income families, part of this funding can be used to support advanced coursework for economically disadvantaged students.

Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): Known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, this section of ESSA provides flexible funds that districts can use for various purposes, including increasing access to advanced coursework. These grants aim to improve students’ academic achievement by increasing the capacity of schools to provide all students with access to a well-rounded education and improve school conditions for student learning.

Magnet Schools Assistance Program: Part of Title IV, Part D of ESEA, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program provides grants to magnet schools, which offer specialized curricula including advanced coursework.

STEM Education Initiatives: Various federal initiatives, such as those from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education, support STEM education in high schools, including advanced courses in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Rebeca Shackleford

Director of Federal Government Relations

Meet Rebeca