Analysis: Dual credit — and a point of diminishing returns

(UPDATED, 5:00 p.m. Thursday, with additional data from the State Board of Education, and corrected information on the overall go-on rates.)

Idaho’s advanced opportunities program has thrived under a simple business model: “If you build it, they will come.”

The state offers students free money to continue their education after high school, and students are snapping it up. Both Gov. Brad Little and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra want $20 million for the program for next year, a $2 million increase.

But clear growth in the advanced opportunities program doesn’t necessarily mean the return on the state’s investment is growing on a parallel track.

Matt Freeman, executive director of the State Board of Education, presented some interesting numbers to lawmakers this week.

For the most part, the trends are encouraging. Students who take dual-credit courses in high school are more likely to enroll in college, more likely to stay in college and more likely to get a degree. None of that is surprising — and it is, after all, the central premise of advanced opportunities, which funds much of Idaho’s dual-credit programs. Give K-12 students a $4,125 allowance, encourage them to use it on college-level classes, and they will continue their education after high school.

If you build it, they will come.

But it isn’t quite that simple.

Despite the growth in dual credit, Idaho’s college go-on rates have stayed static.

To look deeper at the numbers, let’s focus on Idaho’s high dual-credit achievers: students who left high school with 20 or more college credits.

  • For the class of 2016, 81 percent of these grads went straight on to college. And of those, 88 percent stayed in college.
  • For the class of 2018, the go-on and retention rates slipped to 76 percent and 82 percent, respectively. Still impressive, but lower.

Over that same two-year period, the go-on and retention numbers also fell consistently, by 7 to 9 percentage points, for students who left high school with fewer dual credits.

How come?

More students are taking dual-credit classes. The headcount increased by more than 10,000 over these two years. That growing pool includes students who are determined to attend college, but it might include more undecideds — students who might not have the means and the inclination to pursue college.

“It’s likely that the type of student who earns dual credit has changed over time,” Freeman told the House Education Committee Thursday.

Statisticians call this regression toward the mean. The larger the sample size, the more the results level out. What Freeman is suggesting about dual-credit students makes intuitive sense.

But it’s still not that simple.

From 2016 to 2018, the college go-on and retention rates also dropped for students who left high school with no dual credits — by 6 and 9 percentage points, respectively.

How come? That pool of students is changing as well. In 2016, it might have included a larger number of students who were at least on the fence about college, said Cathleen McHugh, the State Board’s chief research officer. Two years later, in the midst of the advanced opportunities boom, a student who takes no dual credit courses has probably decided against college.

Confused yet? It’s understandable. (And a mea culpa: I got this wrong in the first version of this story.) Yes, the go-on numbers dropped for every student group between 2016 and 2018 — but still the overall statewide go-on rate remained flat. That’s because more students fall into those categories of students taking a few dual-credit classes, or 20 or more dual-credit classes, where the go-on numbers are higher.

Take one thing away from this statistical soup. Idaho’s college go-on rate still isn’t budging — despite a multimillion-dollar state campaign to encourage high school graduates to continue their education. The advanced opportunities program is just one part of that campaign.

Ybarra’s State Department of Education makes the case for advanced opportunities with a spate of startling gee-whiz numbers. Nearly 28,000 students used their share of advanced opportunities money to take dual-credit classes last year. They earned 215,000 college credits, saving $64 million in tuition.

“It’s a long-term investment,” Ybarra told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last week. “At the end of the day, it’s benefiting kids, and that’s what’s important.”

For lawmakers, the cost of that investment could increase next year — again. And the State Board’s numbers suggest that, somewhere, there comes a point of diminishing returns.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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