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Creating Productive Relationships Between K-12 Schools and Higher Education Institutions

Early college and dual enrollment programs are, by their nature, hybrid institutions, a mix of the higher education and K-12 systems. Rather than become either college programs for younger students, or 13th and 14th grade of high school, good early college and dual enrollment programs build on the institutions that birthed them, and then develop further on their own. Unfortunately, not many leaders in the education system really have experience of both sides of the K-12/higher education divide. This can lead to mistrust, misunderstandings, and the belief that the other institution has much more money and resources than it is letting on. Most higher education administrators have spent all of their adult lives in colleges and universities, and are used to the spoken and unspoken rules that govern this world. Most leaders in the K-12 arena have spent their lives working with students and teachers, mostly in a highly transparent public sector, governed by law and policy.

It often takes a full planning year for these K-12 and higher education institutions to see one another's perspective, and from there, it often takes having students in common for the two groups to begin to develop a perspective outside their institutional home. As staff and faculty see a cohort of students move through the program, graduate, and move on to college, they become more invested in shared success than in their own home institution's position.

The Importance of College and K-12 Leadership for Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs

When it comes to early college and dual enrollment, if the leadership of the organizations does not truly embrace these programs, and move their own institution to address the needs of the program, the program will eventually shrivel and die. At a college, any number of offices, if they refuse cooperation, can sink a program with a single decision against it. The legal office can decide that it is too risky for lawsuits; the provost's office can decide that it endangers accreditation; the business office can decide it is too costly; the registrar can refuse to assign rooms. Within the K-12 systems, the superintendent and principals can switch priorities at the close of a school year, leaving the program without the staff and funding they need.

I have never seen a truly excellent early college or dual enrollment effort launched without a leadership that is willing to say "make it happen" and sometimes "make it work." In some cases, this leadership is more enthusiastic than in others. But early college and dual enrollment programs, unlike many educational innovations, require visionary leadership at the top, and cannot entirely rely on grassroots efforts of teachers or parents. There are just too many important moving parts, and too many decisions that need to be made to move them forward.

This enthusiastic and visionary person at the top is critical, but so are the levels of organization beneath this. The administration beneath the top level creates the program's infrastructure, solves problems as they come along, and generally keeps the program together. As someone familiar with programs across the state said "at every successful program, I can point to both a top leadership and to the next level who really do the work, and to people who it is in their job description to get the programs to work." Without all these levels, a single schedule change can bring a program to a halt.

The most important part of leadership in developing early college and dual enrollment programs is vision - being able to picture in your mind's eye the way the program should run, and then taking steps to get there. Often, leaders bring the model with them when they switch institutions, and having seen it work wonders in one set of circumstances, are able to adapt it to new places. But folks who do not really get the model, or view it as just colleges offering a discount, are not often going to change their views. There is a level of vision and belief that is vital for starting an early college or dual enrollment program, and must be shared across the whole team.

0 Lead to Launch: Pres. Chrisopher

Hopey, Merrimack College

President Hopey, before founding the early college program at Merrimack College, helped create Foundation Year at Northeastern University, providing a path to college for Boston Public School students. His advice for leaders founding a new program includes:

  • 1. Creating effective programs takes both strong leadership and strong faculty and staff to work with the students. The faculty needs to be as talented as any on campus, but focused on teaching students, not on research and publishing.
  • 2. Programs need to build skills in key academic areas, such as literacy, as well as provide socialization on the campus. Programs that bring students to a campus, and introduce them to college faculty, are needed to help high school students become truly ready for what comes next.
  • 3. In the future, dual enrollment and early college programs will become more widespread as a way of higher education reaching high school juniors and seniors, acquiring enough credits to cut a year of tuition off their time to degree.

Creating Connections through

Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment programs have a long history, dating back to 1955, but have been flying below the radar for much of that time. The first program to take root, the University of Connecticut Dual Enrollment Program, was germinated in the experience of World War II, when colleges and universitiesnationwide saw their primary audience (young men) diverted into national service. This raised the issue of whether at least some high school students, such as academically talented juniors and seniors, might fill this gap in enrollment on campus.

At the University of Connecticut, Provost Albert Waugh was grappling with the same issues plaguing every administrator who wanted to devise early college experiences - he proposed a program to give talented high school students a chance to experience collegiate level work, but his infrastructure of buildings and instructors was not sufficient to address the needs of the students already in the pipeline for enrollment. As a result, Waugh and Connecticut devised the first "dual enrollment" option, with high school students taking college-level work at their high school building, presided over by a high school staff member approved for this work. The initial slate of schools was just a handful, but over time the network has expanded to include a wider range of districts, with an intentional focus on urban districts.

Dual enrollment's emergence in the 1940s and 1950s reflects several key issues of the period. The first was the ebbs and flows of the supply of college students during the period - down to a trickle during World War II, then rising with the Gl Bill, but with infrastructure and policy always catching up to demographic change. The dual enrollment effort also fits with the criticism of high schools during the 1950s, particularly the charge leveled by Harvard President James Conant that high schools were not addressing the needs of the most talented of their students, particularly in areas such as math and science. While not designed to meet this cold war/Sputnik challenge in STEM education, dual enrollment could be viewed as a simple solution to it (Grant 2019).

Real Student: Brian Boecherer

  • • Dual enrollment student in high school.
  • • Inspired to work harder by a C on a paper in a dual enrollment class.
  • • Worked through college and graduate school for dual enrollment program.
  • • Now directs University of Connecticut dual enrollment program.

What Makes Dual Enrollment

Programs Powerful?

Brian Boecherer, director of the University of Connecticut program, was himself a student in the program in high school. What he remembers most about his experience in high school was the first time he got a C on a paper in a dual enrollment class. The faculty member encouraged him to work more on his writing, and Boecherer did, earning stronger grades as he went along. This experience of being academically challenged, and rising to the challenge, is a key ingredient in dual enrollment coursework. Boecherer says that the students who do well in the program are those that have grit, and the program itself aims to build that grit, so that students, even when facing academic frustration, feel supported by faculty to push forward, improving their academic work and their grades.

The key ingredient to the process is selection and professional development of faculty. According to Boecherer, if high school teachers are asking "what's in it for me?" they are the wrong choice. In order to qualify as dual enrollment teachers, candidates need to submit evidence of their background and qualifications, reviewed by the college. Some candidates may need to take further coursework to qualify, and according to Boecherer, the strongest dual enrollment teachers are the ones who embrace this process. Professional development, as well as greater connection to UConn's academic departments follow, and those teachers who persist in the program get a great deal out of it.

Boecherer is proud of the way in which his dual enrollment program has grown from being a program that served some of the state to one that reaches many more high schools. The program has built agreements with all of the urban school districts in the state, and is also mindful of the needs of rural schools, which often lack the resources to offer many high-level classes. The program has diversified its curriculum, now offering 75 classes per year, which allows a broader range of students to explore their gifts, whether standard offerings such as Calculus and Chemistry, or fields such as Spanish, Environmental Science, or Agricultural Science.

Work with urban schools has involved a lot of outreach and visiting. The key to signing on urban schools to the program has been in person on site visits, with the program director making sure that they stop by urban high schools whenever in the city in question. This constant contact and offer of help has earned the program many schools that otherwise would have ignored dual enrollment as an option, and brought many more urban teachers and students into the program as a result. Designating resources for fee waivers for students receiving free or reduced lunch or schools in which 80%+ of students receive free/reduced lunch has also allowed the full range of students in the state to access the program.

Memoranda of Understanding and Policy Documents

Memoranda of understanding (MOUs) are legal documents that lay out the institutions involved in a program, the responsibilities of both sides, how decisions are made, and how the relationship can be terminated. This might sound like a prenuptial agreement for a marriage, but MOUs are fundamentally a way for friends who go into an enterprise together to remain friends, as it provides a framework for a relationship that exists on paper, not in the minds of the parties involved.

Strong and sustainable programs need a few key elements in an MOU to really keep them alive over the long term. A memorandum of understanding that lays out clearly, without ideals, what each side will get and give to this effort. At the end of the day, most early college and dual enrollment programs are the purchase of college credits, often at a discount. Colleges are providing instruction and assessment to high school students. Personnel involved in the program need to be paid, and expenses that are incurred need to have someone who will step up and take responsibility for them. MOUs are a legal way of capturing these key relationships and assigning important roles to the institutions involved.


Lay out the mission of each instruction involved, and how this new initiative fits into both the existing missions and the new mission of the program.

Provide a calendar for regular review and resigning (usually once per year), and ask partners to recommit to efforts rather than just let them passively linger.

Define the status of students - in which ways they are treated as college students and in which ways as high school students. This includes access to areas such as the library, fitness center, tutoring services, and athletic events.

Define key policies for each side of the relationship, and can include areas such as scheduling, qualifications, admissions, and budget.

My wise colleague Dr. Christine Shaw told me to separate out policy aspects of the early college from the legal issues of the MOU. The policy document allows a steering committee to make decisions without going back and revising an MOU that would require re-review by the legal office and sign off by two busy CEOs. Likewise, many MOUs refer to budget information but place an official budget for each year as an appendix. When disputes arise in the day-to-day operations of an early college or a dual enrollment program, going back to the MOU is a key step in resolving disputes. In a context in which both higher education and K-12 organizations experience leadership turnover, foundational documents help everyone around the table grasp what was agreed to in the past.

Connecting the Organizations

The two CEOs of the school system and college should meet at least once per year to update each other on the program and where it stands. This does not have to be a long meeting, but is symbolically and practically important for the program. Particularly as there are leadership transitions and shifts of priorities, it is vital that the heads of both organizations continue to buy into and actively support early college and dual enrollment efforts. Both sides also need to talk about how early college and dual enrollment strategies fit into overall institutional strategic planning and efforts, so that they are not left behind as conditions shift. This can be a 35,000-foot discussion, but it needs to take place, to counter the danger that these programs can become disconnected from the overall institutional mission, ending in neglect, or in programs going rogue.

Steering Committees

Dual enrollment and early college programs do not fit well within the committee structures of high school or higher education. K-12 committees can often do a good job gathering information across teachers, administrators, students, and parents, but are hard to extend to outside stakeholders. Traditional higher education committees are good at managing the status quo, and have a hard time with any innovative structures.

Steering committees for early college and dual enrollment programs often draw from principals, deans, department heads, and student support areas. Key areas such as the registrar's office and admissions are also important to have at the table. After an initial launch period, faculty teaching early college classes are not ideal for the committee, as the group may be hearing about school and student feedback about courses that can be tough to hear. Instead, the group needs to contain the minimum number of decision makers needed to address the problems that the program will run into during the year.

Over time, these committees start to reflect less the sum of individual roles and interests, and begin to focus on problem-solving for a shared group of students. Once people around the table begin to see the students as a joint responsibility, the group begins to bridge the K-12/higher education divide, and to really focus on program effectiveness and student success.

These committees should also be able to move out of the weeds of everyday running of the program to larger policy issues.

Student Support

Smaller committees can take on issues such as individual student needs, or problems seen in classes. Rather than thinking of student support as being remedial and reactive (a student is failing biology, what can we do?) student support can be built into the early college/dual enrollment program from the start. As we learn more about which classes require the most support, help such as undergraduate teaching assistants, writing fellows, and peer support can be built into the class.

Regardless of the proactive services implemented, program staff will need to help contact and access support for students in the program who are experiencing in or out of class difficulties. In our three years of operation, our early college has endured a massive gas explosion, a threatened school shooting, and a global pandemic, all requiring a coordinated program response to support students. In addition, students have struggled with mental health issues, foster care placement, long distance transportation needs, and other barriers.

Over time, college faculty and staff become more accustomed to and empathetic about the needs of K-12 students, and gain more respect for the barriers encountered everyday by K-12 teachers and staff. They often also learn more about the range of issues that can interfere with learning for K-12 students, and can rethink their own approach to issues such as extensions for papers and tests that are due to factors outside of student control.

Budget and Costs

Making a budget can be a painful and sobering experience for early colleges and dual enrollment programs. Without dedicated support at the state or local level, early college and dual enrollment programs are often stuck cobbling together a budget from the separate and already-stretched K-12 and higher education budgets. However grim the task may seem it is important for partners to develop and agree on a joint budget for the program at least once per year.

The key items for these budgets include personnel (on both sides), tuition costs, transportation, books, software, laboratory, and safety supplies. In kind contributions, such as administrator time, should be included as well. Some of these costs will be fixed (most personnel costs) and some are frustratingly variable (books and software that faculty assign for their course). This process will be educational for both sides, as often college administrators have no idea the extra costs imposed on students by idiosyncratic faculty choice - information that may feed back into the higher education system for further examination.

Taking an honest look at the budget can help identify where there are systemic problems in the way business is done in either institution. In the case of higher education, involvement in early college and dual enrollment can show, in black and white, how books and software expenses, added by faculty members, can become more of a burden on the program than personnel expenses for the program. Involvement in these efforts has convinced many in higher education about the importance of open educational resources for courses, which reduce the expense using free online materials rather than a textbook.

Early college and dual enrollment programs are not designed to be primarily a cost saving. While institutions may view early college or dual enrollment as a way to avoid hiring more teachers to teach college-level classes, or as a way to put students in the seats of under-enrolled college classes, good programs require more resources for student support. As Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago said, "Early college means you invest more, not that you spend less." While teachers' unions in both the K-12 and the higher education systems have worried about erosion of jobs in early college or dual enrollment programs, if the program involves full support of the students in the high school, this job erosion does not take place.

The Importance of Special

Events and Milestones

There are not many moments when K-12 and higher education institutions share responsibility for the same students at the same time. Usually, the two systems deal with students in series, with K-12 teachers and administrators handing off the students to us when they enroll in college and arrive on campus. Many times, the relationship between K-12 and higher education shows this rift - K-12 teachers complain that their students, even top students, are less successful than they should be in college; college faculty complains that students are not prepared by the K-12 system to do their work in the college classroom.

This is why it is vital to create events for early college and dual enrollment programs that span this gap, and bring people together in a common celebration of students' achievement and potential. Graduations are a key moment when people can gather and celebrate the students' individual and collective achievements. At Merrimack College, to celebrate the graduation of our early college students, we held a ceremony for them and their families in our campus church. The ceremony included addresses by two student speakers, a speech by one of our professors, and a bilingual song played on guitar by another professor. Students and families lingered into the night after the ceremony was over, taking pictures all over the church.

I have been to many graduations, both high school and college, but this one was unique. The people on stage - the high school principal and assistant principal, the head of the early college program, administrators from the college, were all up on the same stage, distributing certificates and tassels. Every other ceremony or event I have seen is the property of one group or the other, with one staff presenting honors and the other consigned to the audience. This evening, complete with Spanish translation for families, showed how early college programs can transform the relationship between K-12 and higher education.

These kinds of events, launching or closing an academic year, help honor the work of students, faculty, and staff, but also to rally support for early college programs, and make visible the hard work that is being done. Much of the magic of early college takes place behind the scenes - students studying, teachers connecting to students, registrars processing grades. It is only at events such as an orientation or graduation that early college and dual enrollment programs get the visibility they deserve.

(J^The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge:

Dual enrollment programs in Massachusetts have demonstrated:

  • • Mid-range students can benefit from dual enrollment classes.
  • • Students need academic support to benefit from these offerings.
  • • Paying some part of the cost can build buy in and commitment from families.

Dual Enrollment and the Middle Student

Dr. Jack Leonard came to the field of dual enrollment and early college as a result of his experience as a high school teacher and principal, and taking a position teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He served as the evaluator for a project in Amesbury, Massachusetts that sought to develop a dual enrollment/early college program for students in the middle of the achievement range. This program sought to reach a different population than was traditionally highly engaged at the high school - top achieving students taking all Advanced Placement classes. Leonard came to early college through visiting sites in New York City, where he got to see examples of programs where students who otherwise would not be headed for college were being involved in programs, and were highly successful.

As an administrator, Leonard had worked in Boston to try to get more opportunities for his students to take classes at a local community college, but found many barriers to the type of program he wanted. Tests such as the Accuplacer were used to screen students, and as a result, many students who might benefit from the program were excluded from the start. Leonard found that to develop strong programs, higher education partners needed to be much more flexible than they traditionally had been, and needed to be willing to bend some of their rules to implement a program at scale.

Leonard researched how colleges and high schools negotiate agreements to create programs, and found that there were issues that did not emerge in early discussion, but could derail efforts to create strong early college programs. For instance, if administrators did not agree on issues involving union contracts at the college or K-12 level, the teacher/profes-sor evaluation process, and potential financial aid issues, the whole project could be derailed.

While counter to much of the equity thrust of early college literature, Leonard concluded in his research that some charge for college credit to students and families was a positive motivator. Without the revenue from these charges, programs had no way to pay out any of the extra expenses. More importantly, even a token charge gave students and families much more investment in the program, and discouraged students from signing up and immediately withdrawing from the program when the work became challenging. He found that the vast majority of families dreamed of their children going to college, and did not mind paying a discounted fee for the credit received while in high school.

Leonard views early college as a case study of an innovation that requires strong entrepreneurial leadership to launch on both sides - higher education and K-12. However, he saw that for the programs he worked with, the next leaders after the founders moved on or retired were also critical, and if they did not buy into early college, it could wither quickly. He also views early college as a reform that does not need to "scale up," but can be developed to meet local needs and adapted to meet the needs of many different districts, urban, suburban, and rural, without having a common model.

Resource Toolbox

Grant, K. (2019). The Development of Concurrent Enrollment at The University of Connecticut, Retrieved November 14, 2020.

Leonard, J. (2013). Negotiated Issues in an Early College Partnership: Description and Understanding through Interorganizational Theory. Current Issues in Education, 16(3). Retrieved from ojs/index.php/cieatasu/article/view/1058.


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