Lakeland Community College is one of the public colleges participating in the College Credit Plus program.

College Credit Plus, the state-supported dual enrollment program offering Ohio’s students a chance to earn college credit while still in middle or high school, saved those young people and their families a reported $163 million in tuition costs last year.

Those who complete these programs have a higher likelihood of graduating from high school, as well as eventually pursuing a post-secondary degree or certificate program. That’s important, especially as many colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio have struggled with enrollment-related fallout amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet a 142-page performance audit recently released from the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office found some students, especially students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, aren’t accessing the program as much as their peers. The report found the program could be serving far more young people across the state.

“Despite the enormous advantages of the program, the fact is a wide disparity exists among school districts in how well this program is embraced,” auditor Keith Faber said in an August press release.

Supporters tout those “enormous advantages,” including saving students money as they earn college credit. The courses are offered for little to no cost to students. Plus, taking a class at a higher level helps young people start to figure out what post-secondary route they might want to take.

It provides colleges with another pipeline of prospective and engaged students, important as the state’s demographics shift in addition to other enrollment challenges. Colleges can try to recruit and retain those participants to become permanent students at their campuses after high school.

The program isn’t new. College Credit Plus, typically known by its acronym CCP, launched in 2015, though a similar program existed for roughly 25 years before. Statewide participation rose to more than 76,601 students participating in CCP during the 2020–21 academic year, up about 42% from four years prior.

Many of the partnerships allow students to choose between taking their higher level courses online, on a college campus and/or at their own high school. And yet, though K-12 districts are required by law to give information about the program beginning in sixth grade, Faber’s report found some aren’t.

That’s not the case at Akron Public Schools, according to Caitlin Castle, the district’s college access program manager. Amid the pandemic-induced shift to virtual learning, the school made some of its annual CCP information sessions available online.

The district was also intentional at in-person sessions, hosting the meetings at different times and locations in an attempt to provide information to “a larger, diverse group of students accessing the program,” Castle said.

The district added to the state-supplied information, too. It invited former students who took CCP courses while enrolled at the district to share what they learned with current students. Castle chose a representative group made up of those enrolled at both four- and two-year colleges, as well as public and private institutions.

“They said, ‘hey, we had to take total ownership of our learning when we do College Credit Plus courses,’ so then they felt that it was beneficial in their transition to college full-time,” she said.

The district enrolled 778 students in 3,415 classes in 2018. After falling during the height of the pandemic, the number ticked up to 788 students taking 2,530 classes in the 2021–22 academic year, according to Castle.

She attributes that, in part, to more students taking on-site classes offered in the district’s buildings. It also helped that a change at the state level now means students don’t necessarily have to take some exams to participate in CCP as long as their grades hit certain thresholds.

Akron is an urban district. It sees the same disparity between low-income and/or students of color the state auditor’s office noted. But some areas of the city and some of the district’s schools are utilizing and accessing CCP offerings “a little bit more than others,” Castle said.

That group of students “have been shown to enroll in college at higher rates after participating in dual enrollment programs, they also tend to have better outcomes while in college — such as: higher retention rates, higher GPA and higher graduation rates,” the auditor’s office noted in its findings.

“Certainly the state and education providers can build off these outcomes and do more to ensure that every Ohio student and family has real and meaningful access to this program,” Faber wrote in a letter introducing the audit.

Preliminary statewide figures provided by the Ohio Department of Higher Education show a 5% increase in CCP students at Ohio’s main public university campuses, as well as its community colleges, this fall compared to last. Lakeland Community College, for example, reported a double-digit increase.

Jennifer Collis, associate provost for strategic educational programs and retention initiatives at the Kirtland campus, said the school worked to better address students’ and districts’ needs, trying to eliminate potential barriers such as transportation issues and offering classes that fit young peoples’ interests, as well as local workforce needs.

Many students think of CCP as a way to get general education classes completed, and it can be, she said. But others are interested in earning a workforce-ready credential to use after they graduate.

She pointed to an example of a CCP student who earned an associate of science degree and a health technologies certificate at Lakeland while in high school.

The student transferred the credits “flawlessly” to a four-year science degree at the University of Akron, Collis said, and that certificate allowed the student to work in the medical field while continuing studies at UA. The student is now in medical school.

Sometimes, she said, families get confused over AP courses offered at a district versus CCP programs offered by a college. Collis stresses the importance of communication between the partner districts, high school counselors, students and families to make sure everyone is aligned.

There are lots of people involved with CCP at various levels, but the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Higher Education have specific responsibilities outlined by law. Yet there’s no clear understanding of which is ultimately responsible for the overall program, per the auditor’s findings. The report called for establishing appropriate program oversight.

“ODHE, ODE, and the CCP advisory committee should work with the General Assembly to clarify and strengthen the management, oversight and compliance monitoring functions necessary to allow CCP to reach its potential,” officials wrote in the audit.

There’s currently no “distinct, progressive, measurable program goals supported by routine data analysis and evaluation” for CCP, according to the report. Officials said the relevant data collected focus on output, or the number of annual courses taken. They thought it should focus on outcomes, such as whether students spent less time completing their degrees or certificate programs.

Randy Gardner, chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said he isn’t sure the administration of the program is an impediment to its success. Ultimately, he said, the goal is “to support lower-cost pathways to achieve a degree or credential for high school students.”

“Whether we should have specific, articulated percentages or numbers in terms of a goal, that’s a fair question,” said Gardner. “But I can tell you that our goal is always to get stronger and better. And I think the record shows that’s what’s happened in Ohio.”

The report detailed other potential improvements to increase participation.

The list includes having the Department of Education require all districts to comply with the distribution of information as is current law.

The statewide education departments should collaborate on a coordinated marketing plan, as well as creating standard enrollment forms. One college official noted in the report the biggest barrier to participation is a lack of information.

Another option: Offering more classes on-site in K-12 district buildings could get additional students involved more easily. And instead of high schools picking up the tab for textbooks, CCP courses could base their curriculums on free learning materials or split the costs of students’ textbooks between both participating districts and colleges.

ODHE’s Gardner said he found the audit to be positive for the program, saying it provided welcomed support and direction. He added officials will be looking at a “number of those things” to propose via the next state budget.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.