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#AskExcelinEd: What are the challenges to college acceleration opportunities?

• Lowell Matthews

States can jumpstart college-learning in high school.

College acceleration opportunities like Advanced Placement, Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education, College Level Examination Program, dual credit, early college high school and International Baccalaureate can help high school students prepare for college-level work while they earn valuable college credit or work toward a postsecondary credential. Best of all, participating students are more likely to graduate high school, go on to college and complete college degrees on time.

While states are already investing resources into college acceleration opportunities, they can sometimes struggle to deliver valuable, high-quality opportunities to all students—especially low-income, minority or rural students.

Before states can effectively accelerate all high school students toward the pathway and college credential of their choice, they must first address the four challenges to providing college acceleration opportunities:

  1. Quality and Value
  2. Equity and Access
  3. Capacity
  4. Sustainable Funding

Challenge 1: Quality and Value

Quality college acceleration options should prepare students for the rigors of college-level work while allowing them to earn valuable college credit that reduces their cost and time to a postsecondary credential. But that is not an easy task.

College-Level Rigor

College-level rigor remains a challenge in certain college acceleration opportunities. States, postsecondary institutions, and K-12 schools need greater understanding and research on student outcomes from all college acceleration opportunities. Colleges and high schools could improve the quality of opportunities they offer by using student outcome data to ensure offerings truly are high quality.

Value to Students

Sometimes college acceleration course credits fail to transfer into meaningful college credit. This issue with credit acceptance exists when a student’s “earned” college credit isn’t recognized by all institutions, applies only to electives or courses that are not part of credential requirements, or cannot be transferred to subsequent postsecondary institutions—hindering the student’s transition from one postsecondary institution to another. These stranded credits can result in wasted time and resources.

Challenge 2: Equity and Access

Access to college acceleration options remains a stubborn problem, particularly for traditionally underrepresented low-income and minority students. The College Board reports that nationally, Hispanic students took approximately 23% of Advanced Placement exams in 2019, which is roughly in line with Hispanic enrollment in U.S. public schools. However, African-American students took 6% of Advanced Placement exams, even though enrollment in public schools for African-American students is around 15%.

In many cases, these students simply don’t have access to these courses. A recent report from the Education Trust found that low-income and minority students are less likely to attend schools that offer college acceleration options. But even when they do have access, they are often assigned to these options at lower rates than their peers.

Because of equity and access issues, students are missing out on the benefits of earning college credit—higher GPAs, greater retention rates and timely college completion. States can address these concerns to ensure all students have access to quality college acceleration opportunities.

Challenge 3: Capacity

Often, schools simply lack the capacity to deliver college acceleration opportunities offerings to students. Lack of capacity can take two forms: a shortage of qualified instructors or an insufficient number of students to justify hiring a qualified instructor, especially in rural or remote schools. Funding—the next challenge—affects capacity.

Challenge 4: Funding

Sustainable funding is a significant issue for college acceleration opportunities. Funding challenges encompass:

  • Student costs to enroll in and complete college acceleration options (e.g., tuition, exam fees and books.);
  • Costs associated with instructor preparation of qualification (e.g., educator credentialing and professional development);
  • Program costs (i.e., the cost to the school to offer these programs); and
  • Concerns over the state’s investment in providing college acceleration opportunities (e.g., unanticipated demand triggering significant funding outlays, double-funding concerns and state return on investment).

These funding concerns exist as a growing number of students are accessing college acceleration opportunities but the federal and state support for these opportunities are in flux.

Overcoming the Challenges to Accelerate Students

Once states have identified their challenges to college acceleration opportunities, they can develop a plan to overcome them. And ExcelinEd’s new playbook for policymakers, Accelerating Students from High School to College and Careers, can help.

The playbook identifies the commonsense solutions necessary to improve quality, access, equity and sustainable funding for these opportunities so your state can accelerate all high school students toward the pathway and credential of their choice. Read more about these solutions or check out the playbook below.

About the author

Lowell Matthews

Lowell is the Director of College and Career Pathways for ExcelinEd. He previously served as Staff Director for the Florida Legislature’s Senate Committees on Education Pre-K-12 and Higher Education, where he helped create Florida’s industry certification incentive to create a nexus between education and the workforce. Lowell is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University Law School. He also served in the U.S. Army. He lives in Rochester, MN with his wife and two kids.