The Maryland Association of Community Colleges (MACC) has announced a significant increase in the number of Maryland high school students who are earning college credit before graduating high school via dual enrollments.

Dual enrollments — which allow students to simultaneously enroll in high school and college — at community colleges jumped 20% in fall 2014, compared to the prior year.

“Saving time and money is just part of what dual enrollment is all about,“ said Bernie Sadusky, executive director of the MACC. “Dually enrolled students, especially at-risk students, often improve high school performance and are more likely to complete college than peers who are not dually enrolled.“

Many students enter college without a clear understanding of academic expectations, and unforeseen challenges can quickly derail college plans. This is especially true of less affluent and first-generation students, who may lack access to family members with college experience. Dual enrollment programs provide a test run without the high stakes and high tuition of full college enrollment.

Maryland’s dually enrolled students receive a minimum discount of 25% off community college tuition on their first four courses. Discounts vary by county, but can run as high as 50% to almost 100%, depending on additional local grant monies available. Students participating in the Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) Program receive free tuition on their first four community college courses.

During each semester of the 2014–15 academic year, more than 5,000 Maryland high school students took college courses for credit at their local community colleges. Discounted tuition, plus college credit earned in high school, can give students a head start on college and career, and can significantly improve college affordability and reduce student debt.

Dual enrollment programs have a long history in Maryland and were strongly supported by the legislature with passage of Maryland’s Career and College Readiness and College Completion Act of 2013. It is gaining popularity nationally as policymakers focus on improving college readiness and college completion rates.

A number of Maryland community colleges offer a special type of dual enrollment program called early or middle college. Early college programs allow enrolled students to concurrently earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree (or 60 credits toward a bachelor’s degree) while they are in high school; early college curriculums are more rigorous than regular high school, but save students both time and money because two degrees are earned concurrently.

Prince George’s Community College, Hagerstown Community College and the Community College of Baltimore County all offer early college programs. Students enrolled in Howard Community College’s early college program receive 30 credits toward their college degrees, per the agreement with the Howard County Public School System.

Concern about America’s widening skills gap and its effect on American global competitiveness has focused educators and policymakers on strategies to improve 21st-century workforce preparedness. Dual enrollment programs may provide support for increasing college and career readiness and ultimately American worker competencies.