Expanding dual enrollment options across CSU System: Access, affordability and high aspirations

 As a 7-year-old, watching the movie The Sixth Sense, Emily Berry felt something click.

Not in the suspenseful, something-is-at-the-door kind of way you might expect for a youngster watching a thriller with the famous line, “I see dead people.”  

More in the way of recognition, of seeing a life and career possibility in the movie’s portrayal of a psychologist as he guided, cared for, and treated a troubled young patient.

“I was inspired by the way he worked, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up,’” Berry said.

Now 19, Berry is closing in on that goal. Named “Spartan of the Year” as she graduated from Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo this past spring, she is now a student at Colorado State University Pueblo, enjoying her second semester of dormitory life and immersing herself in student organizations and service activities. 

And after receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in May, she plans to continue her studies, likely starting in a Master of Social Work program before moving on to doctoral work in medicine and psychology.

A student photo.
Emily Berry

Berry’s accelerated progress is the result of her participation in a Concurrent Enrollment pathway offered through her high school and CSU Pueblo. Beginning in 9th grade, and increasingly through her high school years, she took college classes that counted toward both her high school diploma and college degree. In the fall, when she started as a full-time college student, she already had the credits needed to be a senior, and her high school and the state had covered tuition and many of her fees.  

Options for getting high school and college credit at the same time, known broadly as dual enrollment programs, are proliferating, both across the state and across the CSU System. Becky Takeda-Tinker, the CSU System’s Chief Educational and Operations Innovation Officer, and Roze Hentschell, the System’s Interim Chief Academic Officer, are leading efforts to coordinate across the System’s three campuses and maximize the choices available for students.

“This is about the CSU System increasing our service to high school students to help them accumulate college credits and get comfortable with collegiate-level courses while they are in high school,” Takeda-Tinker said. “As we expand this work, the potential is significant in terms of reducing the cost of a degree and student success.”

A menu of options

According to a 2021 report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, 53,245 high school students took one or more dual enrollment courses during the 2019-2020 academic year, a 5.6% increase from the previous year. That amounts to 20% of students enrolled in high school that year, and close to 40% take at least one dual enrollment course at some point in grades 9-12, the report notes.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, Colorado had 280,613 students spread across 522 high schools run by the state’s 178 school districts, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Meeting the dual enrollment needs of these students and their respective schools and districts requires a flexible approach and a menu of options, Takeda-Tinker explained.

The future of dual enrollment across the CSU System will involve a collaborative effort to build out that menu, according to Hentschell. “The System’s campuses already have an array of options for high school students, and there’s much we can learn from each other as we focus on expanding access and creating new opportunities.”  

In Fort Collins, CSU offers on-campus dual enrollment through a partnership with Poudre School District, while CSU Extended Campus provides an increasing number of online and hybrid options through partnerships with an expanding network of schools and districts in Larimer and Weld counties, the Denver Metro area, and elsewhere.  

Offerings from Extended Campus span CSU’s colleges and include more than 30 courses on topics ranging from horticultural science and biomedical engineering to financial accounting and design thinking. While dual enrollment courses available through many of the state’s colleges and universities give students a chance to take core classes, Extended Campus also provides more specialized options.

“We’re all doing something that impacts our high school population, making a difference for students and communities,” said Brandi Gonzales, CSU Extended Campus’s relationship manager for high school and community college partnerships. Extended Campus, she explained, aims to offer courses that allow students to explore their interests and perhaps get started on an academic path they will continue.

While students and families don’t pay tuition for “Concurrent Enrollment” courses – the state requires, among other things, that such courses are eligible for the use of College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends – the cost of taking other dual enrollment varies by institution and details of the agreements with a particular school or district. A 2021 policy change reducing the tuition rate for CSU Extended Campus dual enrollment students to $153.35 per credit, the same rate charged by community colleges, coincided with a rapid increase in enrollment, from 50 students in 2020-2021 to 118 in 2021-2022 and more than 200 this year.

And 24% of the dual enrollment students from this past academic year went on to matriculate at CSU in the fall.

The specialized offerings of CSU Extended Campus complement offerings from the other System campuses. At CSU Global, the emphasis is on providing adaptable, online courses – generally 8 or 13 weeks in length – that meet the needs of partnering school districts and their students. In most cases, students who earn a C- or higher in these courses can check off a Guaranteed Transfer (GT) Pathways requirement that applies toward associate degrees and most bachelor’s degrees at every public college and university in Colorado.

Though its most active partnership, which involves Denver Public Schools, CSU Global served more than 400 students in the 2020-2021 academic year.

“We are very passionate about what we do, and we work hard to be a good partner,” said Dawn Roller, CSU Global’s senior director of corporate engagement.

Part of that strength comes from CSU Global’s infrastructure as an online, public university. School districts can select the course length and format that works for their students, and the students then have access to student success counselors and round-the-clock technical support. In addition, CSU Global provides online upskilling programs for high school teachers so they can secure the required master’s level credits needed to teach dual and concurrent courses.  

Finding the right path

Flexibility and strong partnerships also define CSU Pueblo’s approach in working to provide dual enrollment opportunities, both for students living close to campus and those attending far-flung high schools across the state, and particularly in southern Colorado.

This year, CSU Pueblo has close to 150 high school students attending classes on campus, as Berry did. For students further afield, the university has online options as well as its Senior to Sophomore program, a distinctive approach to dual enrollment that involves working with schools to offer college classes in their own classrooms, taught by their own teachers.

Kristyn White Davis, CSU Pueblo’s vice president for enrollment management and extended studies, said a simple question has guided development of these options: “What’s the right path for each student?”

For students who live and attend school miles from any college or university, the Sophomore to Senior Program offers a straightforward path. Department chairs at CSU Pueblo assess whether teachers have the preparation to teach college classes in their discipline – often a master’s degree or higher, though sometimes as little as 18 credit hours of graduate coursework – and then can grant approval. The teachers are then empowered to teach CSU Pueblo classes in their classrooms.

And for teachers who don’t yet have the preparation needed to teach at the college level, CSU Pueblo works to connect them with relevant degree programs and graduate courses.

School districts often cover tuition for dual enrollment students. In other cases, teachers and other community members find ways to make things happen.

White Davis recalled a teacher who for years taught a section of dual enrollment chemistry at a small school in Huerfano County, all before many districts and the state focused on reducing the financial burden.

The teacher may have had as few as four students in his class at a time, White Davis said, and it turned out he was covering their tuition, determined to remove a potential barrier while sending the message, “you are going to take a college class.”

In addition to facing economic and geographic barriers, students can be deterred from pursuing higher education for a range of personal reasons. White Davis said one goal in offering an expansive range of dual enrollment options is to open the door for as many high school students as possible so they can understand what college is about.

“We want them to be able to see themselves as college students,” she said.

Each year, for thousands of Colorado students, that opportunity comes through dual enrollment courses, whether taken to supplement full schedules of high school classes or to begin working through courses that would otherwise need to be taken as part of a degree program.

Berry, preparing to complete a bachelor’s degree at the age of 19, acknowledges that her swift progress may be unusual.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult,” she said. Yet, with her goal of becoming a psychiatrist always in mind, she could see how each step in the process brought her closer to being able to do the work she felt drawn to, even as a 7-year-old.

To high school students thinking about taking college-level classes, Berry offers a simple message, whether the plan is to take one course or many.

“I think anyone who is willing to work hard can do it,” she said.