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


It has long been said that the transition from high school to college is a difficult one and that the presence of college remedial classes can be 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, not only to reduce the need for remediation, but also to ease the financial burdens upon college students who pay per credit, thus strengthening 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 credit 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.

Research Objectives / Goals / Questions

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 high school and college administrators and are backed up by Tennessee state laws. These policies are in widespread operation in the state, especially for math classes; as such, we have chosen to examine the effect specifically of 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.

  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, all treatment students’ taking end-of-course exam, standardization of course content, computer administration of standardized exam, granting of college credit)? Did control schools implement any of the components of the treatment?

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.


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 at 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 policy, 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 magna cum laude, from Harvard College.


2019: Dual-Credit Courses and the Road to College: Experimental Evidence from Tennessee

Susan Dynarski, Steven Hemelt & Nathan Schwartz

Dual-credit courses expose high school students to college-level content and provide the opportunity to earn college credits, in part to smooth the transition to college. With the Tennessee Department of Education, we conduct the first randomized controlled trial of the effects of dual-credit math coursework on a range of high school and college outcomes. We find that the dual-credit advanced algebra course alters students' subsequent high school math course-taking, reducing enrollment in remedial math and boosting enrollment in precalculus and Advanced Placement math courses. We fail to detect an effect of the dual-credit math course on overall rates of college enrollment. However, the course induces some students to choose four-year universities instead of two-year colleges, particularly for those in the middle of the math achievement distribution and those first exposed to the opportunity to take the course in 11th rather than 12th grade. We see limited evidence of improvements in early math performance during college.

[Download the EPI publication]

Additional Resources

2020: EPSOs in Action: Promoting Equitable Access and Success in Early Postsecondary Opportunities

Grace Shelton, Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA)

In June 2019, the Tennessee Department of Education held a research-practice mini conference on early postsecondary opportunities (EPSOs) in Nashville. The purpose of this conference was to bring together policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to discuss new research findings on EPSOs and inform decision making around EPSOs in districts and schools. TERA staff attended, participated in discussions, and worked with the department to develop this report on the research presented on EPSO attainment.

[Download the EPI policy brief]