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Dual Enrollment as an Engine of Economic Mobility: A Q&A with Lorain County Community College President Marcia Ballinger

An LCCC student works on a painting

Photo courtesy of Lorain County Community College

Marcia Ballinger is president of Lorain County Community College, Ohio’s first community college and a leader in innovative efforts to improve student success. The community college is the only public higher education institution in its diverse county, which comprises the Cleveland exurbs, along with the industrial cities of Elyria and Lorain, and a significant amount of farmland. Lorain County Community College (LCCC) is focused on boosting opportunities for all local students and among students from the county’s industrial hubs—which have higher rates of poverty and are more ethnically diverse—in particular. We spoke to Dr. Ballinger about the history of dual enrollment at LCCC, the economic outlook in the college’s service area, and her vision for these programs over the next year and beyond. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Hayley Glatter: What is your vision of LCCC's role in supporting upward mobility and economic development in the community?

Marcia Ballinger: Our goal is to meet what we call Vision 2025: By 2025, we will graduate 10,000 more individuals with credentials and/or degrees that would impact their lives and their families and will increase their earning potential, particularly in high demand areas with meaningful wages. From the economy and community perspectives, we really want to make Lorain County a talent destination by increasing educational attainment that outpaces the region and that would fuel our economy.

Marcia Ballinger headshot

Dr. Marcia Ballinger

It’s critically important for community colleges to truly understand the needs and aspirations of the communities we serve. At this moment in time, we’re dealing with an economic recession, we’re dealing with racism, and we’re dealing with so much uncertainty and fear. Our employers, as well as higher education overall, have experienced so much change because of the pandemic. So it's important for the community college to actively engage, plan, and listen to our partners from K-12, universities, faith-based organizations, the governmental sector, the public service sector, and businesses.

Glatter: What is Lorain County’s economic base and what will it be moving forward?

Ballinger: Lorain County has really been an engine of economic development with regard to manufacturing, from steel plants to automotive manufacturing and the supply chain that follows all of that. Today, advanced manufacturing continues to be strong and is growing. And then, of course, information technology, which really is embedded across all industries.

Part of our growth and future priorities really look at that future of work, and close to two years ago, we created and launched Ohio’s first applied bachelor’s degree offered by a community college. It’s in the area of micro-electrical mechanical systems, called MEMS, and it is really focused on the embedded sensors that make products smart. We’re building on the strengths and the assets of our region and of our talent. As community colleges, we exist to grow talent and jobs, and this program is at an intersection of those two.

Glatter: Where does dual enrollment fit in all of this? What is the history of dual enrollment at LCCC?

Ballinger: We have really been among the pioneers, nationally and in Ohio, with dual enrollment. Ohio first launched dual enrollment back in 1985 with a program called Postsecondary Enrollment Options, which was for the most academically advanced students. I joined the college in 1991, and at the time, we had incremental dual enrollment. It was not a program that was at scale anywhere.

We had our first breakthrough model back in 1994. It was with one of our local high schools in Lorain City Schools. The high school principal at the time asked a simple question: Why couldn’t we offer calculus at the high school for college credit? His calculus instructor was an adjunct instructor in calculus for us at the time. It was one of those aha moments; it just seemed to make so much sense. So we worked to remove barriers to participation, and we created our first partnership model that enabled the qualified high school teachers to be hired as adjunct community college instructors and deliver the college course on the high school campus during the normal high school day.

That model removed several barriers to participation, including the high cost to school districts. There was really a disincentive for them to broadly promote dual enrollment because the old way removed their strongest students from the high school environment. We wanted this to be a win-win. We also removed the transportation issues students had, because this was Lorain City Schools where the highest poverty level was and is. There is a lack of public transit in our community and students didn’t have their own cars.

We didn’t know it then, but this model would become the framework for scaling dual enrollment statewide in 2013 under legislation known as College Credit Plus (CCP). CCP has become a game-changer for Ohio high school students and their families, making dual enrollment free and openly accessible at their high school, online, or at a nearby college. It put in place universal guidelines for administering dual enrollment in Ohio and made it clear for school districts and higher education institutions to administer.

Glatter: What does dual enrollment look like at Lorain County Community College today, and how has it affected the community?

Ballinger: As a designer and early adopter of Ohio’s College Credit Plus program, Lorain County Community College has had such a tremendous impact on dual enrollment. In fact, 43% of all students who graduated from Lorain County High Schools in May 2020 earned college credits from Lorain County Community College. The average student earned 20 college credits at the time of graduation, and 130 associate degrees were awarded to the high school students. The amount of savings to the community and the families for this past graduating class is over $6 million. That’s the power behind dual enrollment. The vast majority of these students are first-gen, so for them, these credits mean that their upward mobility trajectory will significantly outpace their family's economic situation. For Lorain County to truly thrive and to create better economic mobility, we need to move individuals up the socioeconomic ladder. Dual enrollment has the potential to do that, and it has been doing that.

Ten years ago, in 2010, about 20% of our students graduated from high school with college credits. At the time, they earned about 12 college credit hours each, which was significant a decade ago. Now, we have 43%, so we’ve doubled that, and instead of earning 12 credit hours, students are earning 20 credit hours. I want to think about is the longer ballgame in all of this: A decade later, what does it look like for students who graduated with some college credit and then went on to earn a credential or degree? How has it changed their family’s economic mobility? It's a long-term strategy, and dual enrollment is the launch pad that gets high school students engaged who did not have a college-going culture in their households.

I also look at it from the perspective of our wealthiest communities, where families have higher educational attainment. Our dual enrollment numbers are increasing as significantly there as they are in our urban core, and I think that's due to our extremely strong partnerships and relationships with every superintendent, principal, and school district.

Glatter: How has your perspective on dual enrollment programs changed over time? In addition to the program’s expansion, it sounds like thinking on who can benefit most from dual enrollment has evolved.

Ballinger: It’s expanded from what was traditionally reserved for the best and the brightest to really align with my philosophy that every student’s dream matters. When we work with the high schools and the students, it’s around a guided pathway for them. It’s gone from students selecting one or two classes to take where they might have had a few college credits before graduating to become aligned with Ohio’s transfer model, with our associate degrees, and then the bachelor's degrees through our partnerships.

We weren't thinking about guided pathways even a decade ago. Instead of thinking about dual enrollment as a boutique program, we’re thinking about how it’s part of a coherent model that truly is part of a comprehensive approach to the student’s career planning. We now look at it in terms of an entire continuum, from high school dual enrollment through our university partnership program, where students earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Glatter: What are your priorities for strengthening dual enrollment over the next year and beyond?

Ballinger: We have gotten much more intentional with our strategic enrollment management approach overall at the college, and dual enrollment is a major element of that strategy. We have been very focused on equity and increasing participation of first-generation students and students of color, as well as increasing the number of high school dual enrollment grads who are attending Lorrain County Community College post-graduation. We’re also looking to expand courses and programs through what I call "learn and earn" models through free apprenticeships and career and technical education. Historically, dual enrollment was primarily focused on liberal arts, general education, and transfer courses, versus thinking about it as program building blocks on the career technical side.

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