Easing the growing pains of College Credit Plus

One of the big Ohio education stories of 2016 was the growing popularity of College Credit Plus (CCP), a program that provides students three ways to earn college credit from public or participating private colleges: by taking a course on a university campus; at the student’s high school where it’s taught by a credentialed teacher; or online. Many students and families have found that the program saves them time and money and provides valuable experience. For families with gifted or advanced students, it is a chance for acceleration even as early as seventh grade; for students in high-poverty rural and urban areas, it may be the only way to take high-level courses in basic subjects, let alone electives.

Before registering, students in grades 7-12 must be admitted to the college based on their readiness in each subject they plan to take a class in—a decision made by each higher education institution and determined by GPA, end-of-course (EOC) exam scores, and other available data. Once admitted, students can register for any course the school offers, except for those that are considered remedial or religious. (The latter restriction is presumably intended to keep church and state separate while a child is enrolled in a public school.)

Most of the media coverage of the growth of College Credit Plus has focused on its cost, but in October, the state released an overview of preliminary information gathered during the first year (and part of the second year) of the program. Here are a few of the most interesting data points:  

  • During the 2015-16 school year, over 52,000 students took classes from 23 community colleges, 13 universities, and 35 private institutions of higher education in Ohio.
  • Participation varies by student race, with African-American and Hispanic pupils underrepresented when compared with their share of the grade 7-12 population.
  • Participation also varies by income level, though the data aren’t clear enough to draw conclusions (the economic status of 45 percent of CCP students is listed as “unknown”).
  • Unsurprisingly, most students took courses in the five main core content areas: English (24 percent), social sciences (18 percent), math (13 percent), science (13 percent), and arts and humanities (11 percent).
  • Just over 90 percent of courses taken by CCP students resulted in credits earned. Three percent resulted in a failing grade; 2 percent resulted in a withdrawal, and 4 percent had no grade reported.
  • The overwhelming majority of CCP courses were taken on high school campuses and most utilized a high school teacher. Student GPAs did not vary significantly based on location.

The preliminary data suggest a few areas that need attention as Ohio works to ensure that CCP is functioning as intended. 

Pay close attention to passage rates

Eyebrows should rise when seeing that over 90 percent of courses taken by CCP students resulted in credits earned. Other data points—such as state test scores and ACT scores—show a troubling lack of proficiency that one might expect would translate to a smaller percentage of students earning credit. Similarly, average scores on Advanced Placement  (AP) exams indicate that far fewer than 90 percent of AP courses taken result in college credit earned or even in what the College Board terms a “qualifying score” (3 and up). Why, then, are CCP’s passing percentages so high?

One reason may be that CCP’s eligibility requirements permit only college-ready students to enroll. By restricting enrollment to students who have successfully demonstrated that they are college ready, usually through widely accepted measures of college readiness like the ACT  and Compass, CCP passing percentages may be high because the college readiness requirement is acting as an effective gatekeeper. But this could also be considered suspect (i.e. the requirement may be a so-low-as-to-be-meaningless bar) considering how many of the participating post-secondary institutions are “open enrollment” campuses. It’s also possible that CCP courses—most likely those taught on a high school campus by a secondary instructor—just aren’t rigorous enough. Passing these courses is determined by the teacher, not by an external review such as Advanced Placement uses, and we live in an era of grade inflation.

How to ensure that courses taught on high school campuses are rigorous?

The majority of CCP courses (nearly 61 percent) were taught on a high school campus by a secondary instructor—an educator who is already teaching at the high school but has earned additional credentials. Although the state data showed that student GPAs varied only slightly based on class location, that’s no reliable gauge of course rigor. The state’s report notes that “monitoring quality and participation when the course is taken on the high school campus” is an “item to discuss.” Policymakers should talk to representatives from K-12 and higher education for ideas on how to maintain rigor, including how best to train secondary teachers to teach post-secondary classes and to evaluate student work by post-secondary standards rather than K-12 criteria.

Maintain entrance requirements for students

Although some folks have bemoaned the challenges that students face in qualifying for CCP, the college-readiness restriction is critical for two reasons. First, it ensures that only students who are academically prepared for the rigors of college are able to participate, a requirement that, if forcefully and dutifully applied, should prevent students from the double-whammy of a failing grade on both their high school and college transcripts. Second, students who are ineligible for CCP one year can still become eligible the following year if they are able to demonstrate that they have achieved college readiness; this could provide students with more motivation to work hard to reach the bar. A college freshman who isn’t college-ready, on the other hand, has no options except expensive, non-credit-bearing remedial courses. Still, we must keep in mind the softness of a “college readiness” criterion when determined and applied by an open-access college.

Keep CCP and co-requisite remediation separate

A bill now before the General Assembly (House Bill 474) would create a “CCP Co-requisite Remediation Pilot Program.” This would aim at high school seniors in need of remediation in math and English by allowing them to “simultaneously enroll in a remedial course and an introductory college course in the same subject area, or enroll in an introductory college course that incorporates remedial curriculum.” Whatever the merits (and weaknesses) of co-requisite remediation, it’s illogical to push college-level remediation into high school via a program that is, by law, intended only for college-ready students. Remediation on college campuses occurs because students didn’t learn what they needed to learn in high school. Why, then, would the state allow students who are still in high school—and thus still have a chance to prepare for college prior to enrollment—to take college level work for which they are unprepared? Why not encourage high schools to do a better job preparing their students for college, rather than shoving those same students further along the path? The risks for students, whose grades in CCP courses appear on both their high school and college transcripts, are just too high.

Take a deep dive into the underrepresentation of minority students in CCP

Participation gaps aren’t only a CCP problem; AP courses face a similar issue. Although a ton of analysis has been done on AP participation gaps, it’s more difficult to diagnose the cause of CCP’s participation gaps (mostly for African American students) based solely on the information released by the state. Analysts should gather more information and investigate what could be causing the discrepancy. We can assume—based on state test scores—that too few minority students are prepared to qualify as college ready while still in high school. But there could be additional factors at play. Is more and better outreach needed in particular schools? Are some schools subtly discouraging participation or less likely to facilitate the high school-located classes intended to minimize transportation challenges? Answers to these questions could begin to narrow participation gaps.

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CCP is new and we should expect glitches and growing pains. There are no easy solutions to all the problems that it faces, but the initial uptake by students suggests that College Credit Plus is worth continued attention and improvement.   

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an Education Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.