April 14, 2024

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just awarded twelve $175,000 grants. The goal? To create more dual enrollment opportunities for students who may never otherwise consider college.

It’s no secret that attending college is a pricey proposition—and getting more expensive every year. Each individual in the Class of 2022 is walking away with an average of almost $41,000 in student debt. America’s total student loan burden totals nearly $1.75 trillion, spread out among roughly 46 million borrowers.

For many young people, especially from underserved populations, the ballooning cost of higher education is entirely untenable. College is never even on the table for these students—but the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working to change that. On May 24, the foundation announced the 12 winners of its Accelerate ED grants.

These organizations, which hail from Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas and Utah, will each receive $175,000 to strengthen their dual enrollment offerings. Dual enrollment allows students to take college courses for free while still in high school, saving both time and money on their postsecondary education.

The goal of the Accelerate ED grants is to empower these students to complete up to 30 college credit hours by the time they graduate high school. Then, they can earn an associate’s degree in just one more year. The so-called “13th year” is now a lot more viable for students who may never before have considered college as a possible choice.

“This grant concept depends on partnerships between high schools, colleges, and the local workforce/employers,” says Sara Allan, Director of Early Learning and Education Pathways at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The goal is to accelerate paths to economic opportunity and mobility for students who have been historically marginalized.”

The need

Dual enrollment is not a new idea; in fact, it’s estimated more than 1 million students across the country are participating in a college course during high school. But not all these programs are created equal, and access is far from universal. “The challenge with current opportunities that bridge high school, college and work is that they are often not readily available for all students, or they are disconnected from a clear pathway that spans K-12 and higher ed and do not sufficiently include career-connected learning or other wraparound services for students,” says Allan.

Additionally, many of the existing dual enrollment programs are hit or miss. “More often students have experienced random acts of dual enrollment,’ where they end up taking postsecondary courses during high school that do not transfer or apply toward their degree or credential program when they get to college,” says Allan. “Or they take a smattering of career and technical courses that are not aligned to a postsecondary credential of value.” It’s hard to imagine motivating high schoolers to take on college-level work without a clear payoff in sight.

The goal of the Accelerate ED grants is not to reinvent dual enrollment, but rather to make it more effective and aligned with industry demand. “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes that large-scale change must occur in how K-12 systems, higher education institutions, and employers work together to design pathway systems that minimize transition hurdles and maximize support for all students to get both valuable credentials and real-world experience,” says Allan. “These partnerships must be grounded in the needs and aspirations of students and aligned to the local labor market.”

Employers have a big role to play in student success. Allan says that the employer partners are giving input on the pathways to ensure alignment to labor market needs, as well as providing work-based learning experiences, including internships, for students to explore different careers. “Ultimately, these same employers are well positioned to hire young people once they finish and have the credentials they need for in-demand careers,” she says.

The recipients

From approximately 50 groups that applied for the grants, 12 were selected based on criteria such as the breadth of team composition (encompassing K-12, higher education, employers and community organizations), diversity focus and clarity of vision. The applicants’ experience with youth engagement, prior evidence of success and interest in testing digital/hybrid models were also considered.

Each grant, says Allan, is designed with a goal of enabling student to attain a labor market aligned credential or associate degree by year 13, with a transfer path to 4-year bachelor’s degree available. “Grantees will intentionally design a curricular experience that spans years 9–13, with integrated student supports,” Allan says. “Each project is also designed to minimize transitions for students and be delivered in ways that make it universally accessible across high schools (e.g. by working with colleges to offer hybrid/digital delivery). They are also designing ways to weave together different funding streams and attract funding to sustain this work and ensure ongoing affordability for future classes of students.”

During the selection process, the committee noticed trends among the applicants. “There were some core areas that were common, such as IT, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and teaching, and then some that were a little bit more specific to their local context, including the local labor market demands in each state,” says Allan. “It has been interesting for us to look and see what sectors came forth in the applications, where there were unique ones and where they were common.”

Getting families on board

The best dual enrollment program in the world will go nowhere if students and families don’t know about it or see its value. That’s why the winning organizations will create their own student-centered guidance panel. “They will be asking students, ‘What’s it going to take for you to be aware of this, for your family to understand it, for you to feel comfortable opting into this kind of program?’” says Allan. “They are all conducting student empathy interviews to center the experiences of students and families within the design and implementation of the various pathways.”

Effective dual enrollment is all about timing, so students can make the most of their short window of high school. Allan says that high schools are the primary channel for where students encounter and hear about opportunities like dual enrollment. “We know that students and families are eager to understand postsecondary and workforce pathways opportunities available as early as 9th grade,” she says. School counselors, teachers and principals in pilot-school districts will be invaluable advocates to make sure students know why dual enrollment can work for them.

“That really is one of the learning questions we will be evaluating,” says Allan. “Were these opportunities communicated in a way that resonated with students, that was attractive to them and spoke to their interests and aspirations? Was there a demand? That is one of the things we will be tracking over time alongside our partners.”

Breaking through the siloes

I’ve long argued that education, employment and economic development need to break through their siloes to create a viable, purpose-driven future for the next generation. The Accelerate ED grants represent an exciting opportunity for communities to do just that—assembling the building blocks that students need to construct a strong future.

“Postsecondary advising and support on the front end are essential, along with early access to advanced coursework that is aligned to credentials in employment,” Allan says. From there, students can connect to the work in community colleges around guided pathways, with the benefit of credit mobility and transfer to four-year colleges or rewarding employment.

“We have funded and continue to fund these and other evidence-based practices,” says Allan. “Now the challenge and the opportunity is to bring them together in a coherent, systematic way so that they reach many more students. That is our aim, to take all these elements and bring them to scale to really transform the current systems.”

For 12 communities, these goals just became a lot more reachable. Congratulations to the winning teams, and best of luck as you shift the paradigm for the students who need it most.