Research News

Study by UW's Phelps finds dual-credit courses improve college access, success

February 08, 2015
by Paul Baker

Dual-credit courses allow high school juniors and seniors to enroll in a college course and earn simultaneous credit in high school and college. Earning college credits before graduating from high school makes the transition to college smoother and can increase the likelihood of success there and in the workforce.

So it’s not surprising that dual-credit courses are popular. In 2011, 76 percent of U.S. high schools reported that some students took at least one dual enrollment course with an academic focus, while 46 percent of high schools reported students completing dual enrollment courses with a career-technical education focus.

Students who particularly benefit from those courses are those who live in or near manufacturing centers like Wisconsin’s Fox Cities region. Its three counties employ manufacturing workers at two to three times the national average. The area is home to APPVION, for example, which produces thermal papers and films for receipts and coupons, lottery tickets, and medical charts. Pierce Manufacturing and Oshkosh Defense manufacture tactical vehicles for the armed forces. Plexus Corporation produces missile systems, thermal imaging equipment, and sensors for sonar and radar.

These companies and others draw many workers from Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin. Students there learn industrial maintenance, metal machining, fabrication and welding, energy and environmental technologies, and mechanical design, among other subjects. And many of those students took dual-credit courses while still in high school.

Although dual-credit academic course completion has been studied in some states, little is known about how it helps students get into college and succeed there.

In 2013-14 UW–Madison Professor Emeritus and WCER researcher Allen Phelps and colleagues looked closely at demographic factors and school factors associated with students’ success in dual-credit courses at Fox Valley Technical College and 20 large public high schools. Theirs was part of a larger study examining the factors affecting postsecondary student success at four Wisconsin technical college campuses.

The 2,295 students studied had graduated from high school between 2008 and 2010, and had enrolled at Fox Valley between 2009 and 2011. Student characteristics of interest included the number of accumulated dual credits, the rate of postsecondary course completion, whether students continued from the first to second year of college, whether they graduated from Fox Valley within three years, and their annual wages when employed.

School-related variables included 10th-grade standardized test scores or the 2008 average ACT scores; the percentage of students with disabilities or from diverse cultural backgrounds, school enrollment grades nine through 12, and the schools’ college-going emphasis, or seniors’ post-graduation plans.

Course Completion Rates

The study found that female students completed more dual credits than males; on average, 1.4 more credits of any kind of dual credit. Transcripted credit and advanced standing was positively related to college course completion rates. Students completing seven or more dual credits had a course completion rate of 14 percent to 17.5 percent higher than their peers.

Likelihood of Continuing to the Second Year

Transcripted credit course completion was associated with a higher likelihood of continuing to the second year of study at Fox Valley. Students in engineering- or health-related programs were significantly more likely to continue to the second year, but transfer students were less likely to persist than their peers in Associate of Applied Science programs.

Likelihood of Graduation

Transcripted credit and advanced standing students were significantly more likely to graduate in three years (11.6 percent to 12.6 percent), compared with their peers. Students with disabilities were less likely than their peers to graduate in three years. Students in the shorter technical diploma and certificate programs were more likely to graduate.

Likelihood of Employment

Transcripted credit was positively related to the probability of being employed after college, although female students, English language learners, and students with disabilities were less likely to be employed than their counterparts. Students enrolled in engineering and manufacturing programs were more likely than students in other programs to be employed at or above the minimum wage. Students enrolled in one-year technical diploma programs were more likely to be employed than those in Associate of Applied Science degree programs.

Employment Income

Male students, those in manufacturing programs, and those in two-year technical diploma programs tended to have higher incomes than females, students in other majors, and in Associate of Applied Science degree programs, respectively. Transcripted credit was positively related to FY13 annual income in general, but dual credit course work was not related to FY13 annual income above federal minimum wage. (Earnings data are only for the oldest of the three cohort years (high school grads of 2008), and earnings data were only reported for one year, 2012-13.)


It appears that accumulating more dual credits — specifically transcripted credit — is associated with better academic outcomes at Fox Valley.

The positive results for selected dual-credit courses taught by high school teachers (transcripted credit and advanced standing credit) contrasts directly with findings of prior studies. One, for example, found positive student outcomes from dual-enrollment programs only when the courses were completed on a college campus.

Phelps, a longtime faculty member with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and director emeritus of the Center on Education and Work, says that students still considering technical careers in manufacturing in the Fox Cities aren’t the only ones to benefit from this information. This regional information will contribute to the national dialog about college completion and stands to inform secondary education policy. In short, dual-credit coursework is a good option for high school students, and its proven success should encourage more schools to offer this pathway.

An enormous number of personal and academic factors could influence students’ academic efforts and their success in college, including family background, academic ability, high school curriculum, and so on. From various studies we know that some factors are more important than others. Prior studies have also indicated that some factors are more related to other factors, whereas some are relatively distinct and by themselves have a major influence on what happens to students’ college success. To find these factors and to understand their relationships in a statistical way, education researchers often rely on multiple linear regression techniques. This technique allows us to consider a number of factors simultaneously (that’s why it is called “multiple”), control for the influence of other factors, and pay more attention to the unique contribution of certain factors to the outcome we are interested in.

This study used data from the Wisconsin Technical College System office, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, and the Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin. Data included students’ demographic background, transcript records, and subsequent wage records. Researchers analyzed the relationship between student backgrounds, educational experiences, and career success. The research design controlled for differences in student demographic backgrounds and abilities, as well as when they came to FVTC (immediately out of high school or later), and the program they selected.