Dual-Credit Courses and the Road to College: Experimental Evidence from Tennessee


It has long been identified that the transition from high school to college is a difficult one, and that the presence of college remedial classes are instrumental in helping students catch up to advanced coursework. This is especially true for math, a subject in which, as of 2003-2004, almost 40% of college students required remedial learning. Dual-credit policy seeks to solve this problem by offering high school students the opportunity to learn college content and earn college credit while still in high school. This intervention aligns high school and college coursework to not only reduce the need for remediation, but also to ease the financial burdens upon college students who pay per credit and thereby strengthen college enrollment, persistence, and graduation.

Dual-credit policy enjoys tremendous popularity in the United States. In 2009, 41% of high school graduates had earned college from a dual-credit course, up from 35% in 2005. State legislation nationwide promotes dual-credit policies as elevators of student success. Nevertheless, there remains scant research that proves the efficacy of dual-credit courses on educational outcomes.

What are the Research Objectives?

This project will estimate the causal relationship between dual-credit opportunities and subsequent educational outcomes. These outcomes are defined in three capacities: enrollment in additional high school math courses; college attendance, choice, major, performance, and persistence; and enrollment in remedial math classes in college. To do so, we will use a randomized controlled trial to measure the causal impact of dual-credit high school algebra classes using data from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Tennessee provides an excellent policy context for this research. Dual-credit interventions are supported by Tennessee state legislation, high schools, and colleges alike and are in widespread operation in the state, especially for math classes; as such, we have chosen to examine the effect of specifically dual-credit math curricula. Research shows that many students struggle with math upon matriculation to college and many require remedial coursework. More than any other subject, there is considerable potential for dual-credit math coursework to help our target population.

Research Questions

  1. What is the effect on secondary and postsecondary outcomes (course-taking, remediation, and attainment) of offering to secondary students a dual-credit algebra course?
  2. Among students who participate in the dual-credit course, what is its effect on secondary and postsecondary outcomes (course-taking, remediation, and attainment)?
  3. Do these causal effects vary by student, school, or district/regional characteristics?
  4. Were the components of the treatment implemented in the treatment schools (e.g., teacher training, end-of-course exam taking by all treatment students, standardization of course content, computer administration of standardized exam, granting of college credit)? Did control schools implement any of the treatment?

When will Results be Available?

Early findings will be presented at academic conferences by 2016 and long-run findings by 2018, when we will make available a formal policy brief and hold a conference in Tennessee to discuss our research. An academic paper covering both short- and long- run conclusions will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals no later than 2019.

How is the Study Funded?

This study is funded by the United States Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences grant number R305H140028 to the University of Michigan. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Who will Use the Research?

As an evaluation of an innovative policy intervention, this study will advise state officials and education policy actors in both Tennessee and other states exploring dual-credit course strategies. It will also be valuable for educators concerned about the transition between high school and college, and has wider implications for student outcomes in postsecondary education.

Who is on the Project Team?

Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan

Steven W. Hemelt is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. He also holds positions as a faculty fellow at the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) in Chapel Hill and as an affiliated researcher at the Education Policy Initiative and Michigan Consortium for Educational Research (MCER) at the University of Michigan. His research uses quantitative methods to answer cause and effect questions spanning topics of education policy, economics of education, labor economics, and program evaluation. Dr. Hemelt’s work has recently included an examination of program effects on student high school performance, transition to college, and longer-run college outcomes, as well as the impact of K-12 accountability mechanisms on student outcomes.

Nathaniel Schwartz is the director of the Office of Research and Policy for the Tennessee Department of Education. His research focuses on large-scale teacher policy reforms and the impacts of accountability at different levels of the educational system. He is an affiliated researcher at the Education Policy Initiative at the University of Michigan. As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, he was the first research manager of the Michigan Consortium for Education Research (MCER). Dr. Schwartz holds a PhD in educational studies, social foundations and policy as well as an MPP from the University of Michigan, and an AB in social studies, magna cum laude, from Harvard College.