Let’s Build on What Works: Career/Technical and Dual Credit Programs Help Close Graduation Gaps

By Marisa Gustafson and Joe Nathanimg

Marisa Gustafson is Assistant Director and Joe Nathan is Director of the Center for School Change. Their guest blog post highlights a practical and effective strategy for closing gaps in opportunity in high school and beyond. 

Equity and reducing gaps in education are hot topics in Minnesota right now; this has been recently demonstrated by the Minneapolis mayoral race. While this is a much-needed focus in the Twin Cities and throughout the state, some public schools are taking action now to give their students better opportunities. These opportunities in turn are producing very encouraging results.  Some schools are using proven programs that can greatly reduce or virtually eliminate the graduation gap between races and income levels.

Here are two separate, but related research-based approaches that have proven to be very helpful.  They involve the use of career-technical and dual credit courses.

A great deal of deserved attention has been devoted to how strong early childhood programs can improve the transition to kindergarten and beyond.  But additionally, we need to give more attention to the transition between high school and some form of higher education.  Like high quality early childhood programs, these strategies have positive, continuing results. 

Provide more opportunity for students to take strong career/technical courses.





4-YR MN High School GRAD RATE (2012)

[taken from MN Dept. of Ed. data center website]




 [students took 2-3 courses in career/technical education (CTE) field]

Black, non-Hispanic






American Indian/Alaskan



Asian/Pacific Islander



White, non-Hispanic



Limited English proficiency



Economically Disadvantaged



Special Education



Source: Minnesota Department of Education’s Carl Perkins Core Indicator report –State Basic 4S1 – NCLB Grad Rate, 2011

A report released by the Minnesota Department of Education demonstrates that participation in programs like these (in this case, taking 2-3 courses in a career or technical field), can bridge graduation gaps.  The table below shows that not only are the graduation rates nearly double that of the state average for some groups (i.e. American Indian), but also everyone does better—those from low income families, ELL, special education, and even white students.

Sounds great, right?  So what’s the problem?   Not enough Minnesota students and families have adequate access to career and technical courses, especially those who stand to benefit the most—those from traditionally underserved groups.  Although we think offering more traditional advanced courses is fantastic, we know that not all students are interested in and motivated by math or Shakespeare and would rather learn about more ‘hands-on’ fields.

Expand access to Dual Credit courses, especially for traditionally underserved students.

Some of the career-technical courses mentioned above can be taken through Dual (High School/College) Credit programs, but taking any type of Dual Credit course is helpful.  In these programs, students can earn credit toward high school graduation and free college credit at the same time. They also gain valuable exposure to and experience with college level classes and career and technical fields.

A report from a well-respected research organization Jobs for the Future found that students who took even one Dual Credit course in their high school career were about twice as likely to enter a post-secondary program, and twice as likely to persist and obtain a degree or credential.

Furthermore, an extensive report on the outcomes of taking Dual Credit conducted by a research group out of the University of Minnesota found that the impact is indeed greater for students who tend to be excluded from these courses:

Males, low-income students, and low-achieving high school students all appear to benefit from their participation in dual enrollment to a greater extent than their dual enrollment peers who enter college courses with more social, economic, and educational advantages. This indicates that dual enrollment may well be a strategy for encouraging postsecondary success among students not typically seen as college-bound. It also indicates that contrary to the arguments of some critics of expanding dual enrollment programs, dual enrollment can benefit a range of students, not only those who achieve at very high levels in high school. Indeed, dual enrollment may be the most beneficial to those students who are often excluded from participation.

–Karp et.al, The postsecondary achievement of participants in dual enrollment: An analysis of student outcomes in two states,” 2007, p. 63

Given this (and lots of additional) convincing research, we are convinced that not enough Minnesota students and families know about Dual Credit programs, especially those who stand to benefit the most—those from traditionally underserved groups. 

Some Dual Credit courses are offered in the high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), concurrent enrollment or College in the Schools (CIS), and Project Lead the Way. Available to any high school student is Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO).  PSEO courses are taken on college campuses or online, beginning in 10th grade with career/technical. What we need to focus on now is expanding access to make sure all types of students are informed of and encouraged to participate.

Here are the participation rates in Minnesota for various Dual Credit programs by race and income:



Statewide, 38% of Minnesota students are low-income and 27% are students of color, but this is not reflected in all Dual Credit programs. In Advanced Placement (AP) for example, just 9% of students are low-income and only 16% are students of color.

The good news is that more schools than ever before are offering and promoting Dual (high school/college) Credit programs as a way for students to become better prepared for not only high school graduation, but also post-secondary education and careers.

The bottom line is that we need to do a better job of utilizing programs that already exist and have evidence to show dramatic benefits for traditionally underserved students (and all students). Many Minnesota schools have been working hard to increase these opportunities for their students, but we can (and should) do better. Every high school, higher education institution, and community organization should be working with and helping students participate in programs like career/technical courses and Dual Credit so that they have the opportunity and tools to change what some might call their ‘demographic destiny.’

If you want more information, including student videos, an interactive map, and other resources, visit www.centerforschoolchange.org/dual-credit.  There you can hear from students themselves in 7 different languages: English, Spanish, Hmong, Arabic, Karen, Somali, and Dakota.

Check out the video below and see what the students at the High School for Recording Arts have to say about Dual Credit programs and “how you can get a Jump Start on your future.”


Leave a Reply