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At a department heads’ meeting I attended a few years ago, the new head of a department that had a substantial presence in general education expressed concerns about the quality and usefulness of dual credit. I thought: You have work to do. You can fix this. And it is worth it.

When I became department head just over a decade ago, I inherited several dual credit courses. The revenue they generated for us was terrific. I wanted us to be proud of our dual credit offerings and to be able to expand them with confidence. Based on the work I did, I offer you a primer to understanding dual credit and how you can help it reach its potential for your unit and your institution.

What is dual credit?

Let’s begin with definitions as the various ways of offering dual credit can create confusion. In my experience, dual credit can be offered when (1) a high school teacher is credentialed to offer college credit for courses they already teach during the regular school day, (2) an institution sends a faculty member to teach a university course in a high school, and (3) a high school student enrolls as a dual credit student in a regular university course. In all these cases, the student earns high school and college credit simultaneously, and the tuition is discounted.

While our institution used all three models, I will focus this primer on the first as I believe it offers the greatest return on investment of effort. I write here in the simplest terms about processes at the institution where I taught. Your task will be to learn about the practices and possibilities at your institution.

The models described above invite us to ask many questions. We have already addressed the what, so let’s usesome other questions to structure our primer.

Why should you offer dual credit?

A quality dual credit program benefits your unit, the high school that offers dual credit, and the students who enroll. It benefits your unit in revenue and in reach. Find out about the revenue model for dual credit at your institution and in your state. Dual credit tuition may be subsidized at the state or district level for K–12, may be available to students at minimal cost and may generate revenue for both the school that offers dual credit and the university department that authorizes it and provides oversight. Schools will want to offer dual credit for their over-and-above offerings, such as IB (international baccalaureate), AP (advanced placement), and dual credit. These add prestige and are of practical value. They are practical because they document learning outcomes and help students earn college credit. The high standards of an IB program and the curriculum that prepares a student to earn a 3 or higher on the AP exam (often the minimum for college credit) can be extremely demanding academically; however, the content of a dual credit course that equates to a first-year general education course, for example, may be manageable for more students. When you authorize dual credit courses in schools in your institution’s feeder region, you have a direct line of communication to prospective students and their teachers. While the course you authorized may be transferrable nearly anywhere—for example, Spanish 102 or Chemistry 100—the students know the credit was earned at your institution. They already feel connected, and so do their teachers, whose expertise you have recognized by credentialing them. You can communicate directly with both students and teachers through occasional virtual or in-person visits you make, through visits by your advanced students and current majors on campus, or by sharing recruitment materials.

Who should offer dual credit?

A wide range of public institutions that seek to expand their recruitment and enrollment reach will want to offer dual credit.

Which disciplines lend themselves to dual credit?

Dual credit lends itself best to lower-division courses in disciplines that are taught in high schools and that typically belong to general education. Examples are English, history, world languages, math, and many of the sciences. Other areas, such as art and drama, may also be appropriate.

How do you set up dual credit?

Establishing successful dual credit programs begins with having clear standards for credentialing, quality instruction, and measurable learning outcomes. Turn to your own departmental standards or to those of your professional organization for clear descriptors of quality instruction in your field. When you have established those standards for courses taught within your department, it is easy to apply the same ones for dual credit courses. These standards should be agreed upon by your faculty and shared on an informative website for prospective dual credit teachers. Making the full set of requirements clear from the outset can help you avoid upset later. We learned, for instance, that it is important to conduct a teaching observation before approving teachers to offer dual credit. Quality classroom instruction is essential for success in fulfilling learning outcomes, especially when college-level outcomes are to be achieved at the high school level. Effective teachers are your best dual credit partners.

Creating and maintaining effective dual credit programs takes time on task. You may want to assign a faculty member to help oversee dual credit. This “dual credit liaison” will vet prospective dual credit teachers and recommend them to you for credentialing, observe teaching annually, and review products of learning and summative assessments to confirm that learning outcomes are met. They can also be asked to coordinate a professional learning network to foster continuing professional development. The members of the network themselves may generate offerings—even ones relevant for your own faculty—or they may request that you help subsidize workshops on specific topics they identify as especially needed. The revenues generated to the dual credit office on your campus or to your unit can help you compensate the liaison for their time and effort as well as support professional development offerings that benefit everyone. Teacher applicants who do not yet quite meet your established standards for offering dual credit can be invited to engage in the necessary professional development or graduate coursework to become qualified. Helping teachers in your feeder region meet these standards can be highly rewarding for you and for them. This process can create a great degree of connection and loyalty.

When shouldn’t you offer dual credit?

Some might argue that it would be better not to offer dual credit—to instead hope students take that entry-level course in your field after they arrive on campus. Those who take this position might argue that only university faculty can create lower-division content that has the academic integrity of on-campus courses. You will have to make the judgment call on this. I would argue that when you reach into the schools to foster a quality learning experience for a specific audience there—a bird in the hand, so to speak—your potential for gain is greater. You can help influence quality learning in the schools. And while you have the attention of your dual credit students, you can help them understand the value of continuing their studies in your discipline once they come to campus. You don’t have to do this work yourself. Your current students and alumni can help supply the examples and the stories that make the case.


Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.