Dual enrollment ... is your child ready?

Dual enrollment through a brick-and-mortar community college offers a great opportunity to do advanced work while still in high school. But is your student ready? 

I’m a big fan of dual enrollment, but there are some considerations I wish other experienced parents had passed along to me when my oldest was starting high school.

Better to start early? Or late? (AKA, it is your ego?)

Different community colleges have different requirements about who can participate as a dual-enrolled student. Some CCs require students to have finished their sophomore year or be sixteen years old. 

But lately there has been a lot of buzz about younger and younger students—sometimes even middle schoolers!—taking dual enrollment classes. Many homeschoolers are being encouraged to start DE early, which can lead to issues that lots of parents aren't aware of. There are a number of good reasons why it might be a good idea to start dual enrollment later rather than early in high school. 

When parents plan on having their students start CC classes early, most consider only the student’s ability to deal with the academic rigor, and in fact, many young homeschoolers are capable of successfully tackling academically advanced material. But the kinds of issues that your kid will deal with at CC will probably be`15% based on their academic workload and 85% based on their social life (student interactions, the atmosphere at the CC, etc.). Many parents neglect to consider non-academic but equally important factors for success at CC. 

Here are some things I'd never considered but are just as important as academic readiness:

1. The vast majority of CC students are adults ... working adults. Can your student handle raw language and adult discussions? Can your student handle getting hit on, by males and females? Swearing and talk of drugs, alcohol, and sex can be common before class, during breaks, and sometimes in class. While your student does not need to participate in these conversations, he or she needs to be comfortable being around such language. It is pervasive. (Foreign language classes may require the student to participate in some limited discussions about alcohol, smoking, and/or sex. Many language instructors feel a responsibility for educating students about how to deal with these topics in a foreign language.) 
Are you okay with your child potentially being around people who've recently been released from prison, are active gang members, or are registered sex offenders? Certainly, this may not be the case for the particular classes that your child is in. However, a friend who teaches at a CC tells me that she regularly teaches these folks, and these are the ones who choose to disclose that information to her. If you think your student will be surrounded only by 18 year olds fresh out of high school, you're mistaken.

2. Is your student mature enough to handle the CC process *entirely* on their own—from advising to taking finals and handling any problems in between? This might mean sorting out a misrecorded grade, sitting alone with an advisor behind a closed door, meeting for office hours, or asking for help on problem topics. Are they comfortable approaching a faculty member to ask a question? Remember, it will be entirely up to your student to manage communication with the professor. Online communications will most likely be through a CC email address (not your home email address), and some classes use an online system like Blackboard. 

3. Is your student able to speak up in class in front of other students twice their age? Many classes count class participation as a large part of the final grade.

4. Is your student capable of keeping up with hard deadlines? Ideally, this would be without your help, since you won't have automatic access to their records, homework, or communications.

5. Is your student mature enough to interact with adults on an ongoing basis? In my daughter's Russian IV class, she has the same five classmates that she had in Russian I. There will be people who will disagree with your kid on their fundamental beliefs (politics, religion, etc.). Can your student manage the social niceties over multiple semesters or years? Can your kid share their book in class with the grungy student who smells like pot and hits on them?

6. Does your student have legible handwriting? This is one I hadn't considered but is *extremely* important. The handwriting must be universally legible, not just decipherable by mom. 

7. Can your student maintain composure after receiving a failing grade, unfair comment, or test/quiz that contains material that has not been covered in the text or in class? If a test or paper with a failing grade is returned at the start of class, will your student be able to make it through the rest of class without falling apart? Even the best, smartest, most prepared kids can get “surprise” grades (e.g,, by forgetting to put a name on the paper).

8. Is your child mature enough not to be a brat? If your child gets a test grade that's the highest in the class, can they be respectful of their classmates? Can they hold back the snickering, the boasting, and the sly jabbing?

9. How will CC classes impact your family’s routine? Most (not all) classes happen twice per week. It might be hard to get back-to-back classes on a single campus. At our CC, not all campuses offer all classes, so you might be driving from a campus in the south part of the city to the campus an hour away on the northern outskirts. Are there younger kids in the family that will have to make more frequent driving trips and have their homeschooling interrupted? Taking a week off in the middle of the semester to travel won’t be possible—in some classes, attendance and class participation are half of the grade—and tests might be scheduled in a testing center over weekends. Will CC classes mean that your student will miss out on academic or social time with more similarly aged peers? Academic challenge is important but, in my opinion, should not be done at the expense of having a strong social network.  

10. Does your student *need* to start ACC classes now? What are the different learning options? Some of the most challenging and successful classes my kids have had were small discussion groups led by homeschooling parents (we have some very talented parents in our community!). If you need some guidance preparing and running a class, think about leading an AP class with other homeschoolers. 

11. At some CCs, there are a limited number of free or reduced-tuition classes offered through DE. If your child starts as a freshman, will your child run out of classes before the end of high school? If you have a very math-y kid and she takes Calculus 1 in her freshman year, what will she be doing for math in her senior year? (Most engineering programs want to see math taken every semester, but most CCs have a limited offering of advanced maths.)

12. If your child is aiming for selective colleges, how sure are you that they'll get good grades? That CC transcript will be permanently attached to them on their college apps. If your child is shooting for an Ivy, for instance, can you be certain that they'll make an A? If not, that B or C will significantly hurt their chances at those top schools. My son blew off some homework in his first calculus class because homework was only 10 percent of his grade. In the end, he received an A only because the prof rounded up--he finished with an 89.6. If he'd made only a few points lower on even one test, he'd have made a B. Not good when you're shooting for selective schools. 

13. Colleges DO NOT care how old your kid is when they got that A in Differential Equations. They're not impressed by young whiz kids; they see them every day. In fact, most colleges prefer older students because they are more mature and less prone to flaming out as freshmen.

14. Are you okay with NOT seeing your child's grades and being totally out of the loop on what goes on in their classes? By law, CCs can't share anything with you about your student unless they give consent, even if they're underage. You won't see their grades unless they show them to you, for instance.

15. Finally, think about why you want your child to start CC early. Be honest … is it to boost your ego? Or is it because your child needs more academic challenge? There are other ways of offering your child academically engaging material without using DE. 

What to do if your young kid is ready for advanced work but isn't ready for dual enrollment?

This is where the fun starts! There's a lot of research that shows that people learn best when they're engaged and interested. So find out what floats your kid's boat and let them dive deeply into that subject (how's that for mixed metaphors?). 

My kids did very different things because they were very different people. When my mechanical-engineering son started high school, we gave him a membership to a maker-space and access to classes that taught welding, laser cutting, 3-D printing, and more. (The knowledge he gained there was instrumental in his receiving an internship after his freshman year in college.) With my humanities daughter, we encouraged her to spend summers overseas learning languages, one summer with a volunteer group where she learned Spanish through immersion and another summer through NSLI-Y (completely free!). With my musical son, we set him up with mentors so that he could perform regularly around town (and get paid!) and volunteer with music schools.

We also encouraged our kids to do things that traditional high schoolers aren't able to do. My daughter, for instance, acquired two certifications in teaching English as a foreign language before she graduated high school. We know of a number of families whose kids have earned certifications or licenses or become proficient in areas typically associated with the adult world: Master Gardeners, pilots, chess Grandmasters, book authors, financial analysts, business owners, online tutors, and more ... all before graduating high school. Those experiences do much more than taking another class at a CC.

Remember that learning doesn't have to take place in a classroom. Sometimes the best learning happens when a student is out in the world making mistakes, learning through failure, and gaining knowledge and self-confidence through lots of small successes.