Fewer students in Sarasota are signing up for dual enrollment courses, now that the program is offered through the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

A new partnership between the Sarasota County School District and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee is off to a slow start this year. Just 45 students have signed up for dual enrollment classes through USFSM, a fraction of the nearly 500 students who enrolled last fall, when the program was run by the State College of Florida.

The steep drop in participation, following SCF's withdrawal from the program last year, can be partially explained by several factors, school district officials say.

USFSM has introduced tougher entry standards, requiring a minimum 3.5 grade point average requirement, compared to SCF’s former minimum of 3.0, and the qualifying test scores for participation have increased. SCF also had the benefit of a years-long relationship with the school district and the teachers running the classes, while USFSM’s program is in its first year, and classes are offered at far fewer schools than previous years.

Despite those explanations, School Board members, along with Superintendent Todd Bowden, said the decline was a concern.

“That is rather low, and it is a big drop-off. It is something we should look into,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Caroline Zucker said.

Manatee County Schools entered into the same arrangement with USFSM, but the drop in enrollment has not been as dramatic. Last year 857 Manatee students took dual enrollment courses on their high school campuses through SCF. While Manatee is not on pace to hit that number, 357 students have signed up for first-semester classes. In Sarasota, enrollment fell from 484 first semester in 2018 to 45 signed up so far this year, according to numbers provided by the two districts.

The comparison to Manatee isn’t apples-to-apples, however. Manatee is offering various USFSM courses at six of the district's traditional public high schools, but Sarasota only has classes at North Port High School and Pine View School. Students in both counties can opt to take the courses online, at their high school (if available) or on USFSM’s campus in southern Manatee County.

Why the change?

USFSM is stepping in to fill a void left when SCF announced plans last fall to stop offering dual enrollment classes on high school campuses in the two counties.

SCF officials made the decision following a review of the program that identified “inconsistencies” in the quality of programs, an SCF spokesperson said at the time. The move sparked consternation among families who had been using the program.

There were questions as to whether SCF was eliminating on-site dual enrollment because of plans to open an additional charter school at the SCF campus in Venice. SCF officials denied any connection, pointing out that the new charter would have enrollment only for 400 students.

School Board member Bridget Ziegler said she would like for the board to pursue new negotiations with SCF in light of the current numbers. 

“While I am incredibly grateful that USFSM was able to come to the table and provide additional opportunities for our students, I believe when we take those numbers and look at that drop-off, that there is clearly still a void,” Ziegler said.

SCF is still participating

Students hoping to earn college credit for free through dual enrollment while in high school, potentially saving thousands in tuition expenses down the road, still have several options.

Although SCF is no longer offering dual enrollment on high school campuses, the school has increased offerings for students who are able to travel to the Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch or Venice SCF campuses.

“We do think there is some confusion that we have stopped offering dual enrollment. We have not stopped offering dual enrollment,” SCF spokeswoman Jamie Smith said. “We have just changed the delivery method.”

Students can take any of the Associates of Art or Associates of Science courses at SCF campuses, and the school lifted the limit on the number of credit hours from six to 15 each semester. In theory, a highly motivated student could take a full college course load.

Expanded offerings, along with shutting down courses at students’ home high schools, have led to increased enrollment at the three SCF campuses this year.

Smith said 829 students have signed up for dual enrollment classes at SCF this year, with 387 from Sarasota and 442 from Manatee. Total enrollment is up 24%, according to SCF’s figures, with Sarasota increasing 8% and Manatee increasing 42%.

The district also offers online dual enrollment courses with the University of Florida, but participation is confined to a handful of students, with seven students taking UF classes last fall. The district does not have this year's enrollment numbers yet.

Options, options, options

School Board member Shirley Brown pointed to the array of options for students looking to earn college credit in Sarasota, including Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) option at Sarasota High.

Dual enrollment gives students the chance to take college courses free and potentially guarantee acceptance into one of the state’s 12 public universities if they earn an Associate’s degree. However, students looking to attend out-of-state schools or more competitive private universities may want to consider some of the options Brown mentioned. AP, IB and AICE are considered more academically rigorous by many universities, and state college credits aren’t guaranteed to transfer.

“There are other options for kids today than the dual enrollment,” Brown said. “AP, IB, AICE — those may even be more rigorous than what is at a community college.”

If families do opt for dual enrollment, one additional consideration is whether to take the class on the high school campus, if it is offered, or travel to USFSM or SCF’s campuses. Board member Eric Robinson said much of the value in dual enrollment comes with the college experience students get by venturing off high school grounds.

“There has been way too much focus on taking dual enrollment on (high school) campus,” Robinson said.

Making the trek to SCF or USFSM may be worth it.

A 2011 study comparing outcomes for Florida students who enrolled in AP courses to students earning dual enrollment on a college campus found that both options produced higher rates of college acceptance, but there was no statistical difference for students who completed dual enrollment classes at their home high school.