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To help students get a head start with college credits without having to pay college tuition, Zion-Benton Township High School District 126 lets its students take college-level courses on everything from history and political science to culinary arts and cybersecurity.

The courses are a part of the small suburban district’s dual credit program, in which the district’s two high schools partner with College of Lake County to offer courses to students. And there’s significant demand for it: Melissa DiGangi, executive director of academic excellence at District 126, said that the district set up the program because more than half of its students say that they want to attend a two- or four-year college after high school.

“We can provide that first college experience in a safe supportive learning environment,” said DiGangi.

Zion-Benton is far from alone. Due to recent changes in state law in 2021, Illinois high schools were encouraged to expand their dual credit courses. And the share of students who are taking these advanced classes has been on the rise over the past several years: Participation in dual credit courses grew from 10.2% of high school students in the 2017-18 school year to 14% for 2021-22, according to a recent report from the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative.

A separate Chalkbeat analysis of Illinois’ high school students’ participation in dual credit courses between the 2017-18 and 2022-23 school years also found disparities in participation rates between different student demographics

However, the report also found that in Illinois, students of color, students from low-income families, and English learners do not have the same level of participation in dual credit courses as their white, Asian American, and affluent peers. (The report was funded by the Joyce Foundation, which provides funding to Chalkbeat.)

Even within school districts, on average, white and Asian American students have higher participation rates than other racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, English learners, and those from low-income families the report found.

Sarah Cashdollar, the report’s author, said that often when schools take steps to expand access, participation increases but gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines tend to widen. She said there are benefits for all students taking advanced coursework in college, but they can be especially helpful for students of color and low-income students.

“There is some evidence suggesting that impacts are especially beneficial for students who historically have been underrepresented as college attendees and college graduates,” said Cashdollar.

Meg Bates, director of Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative, said one reason for disparities could be that school counselors and teachers used to frequently recommend to students that they take advanced courses. Since state law changed in 2021 to automatically enroll students in advanced courses, those disparities might change, but it is too early to tell, Bates said.

State law requires public universities and colleges to accept the credit if a student passes the course. For students from low-income families, this could help them save money on college tuition or prevent them from borrowing student loans. Research also shows that high school students who take college level courses are more likely to attend college in the future.

The report found some bright spots in the state’s participation data between school years 2018 to 2022. For instance, participation rates for Native American, Latino, and English learners grew over that time.

Cashdollar’s research also uncovered a geographic divide. On average, school districts in southern Illinois had a large number of students participating in dual credit courses in comparison to districts in Northern and Central Illinois. Also, there was higher participation in districts located in rural areas and towns than in urban and suburban districts.

State data indicates Chicago Public Schools, the state’s largest district, offers fewer dual credit courses than Advanced Placement courses. A spokesperson for the district said CPS is working to expand opportunities to advanced courses for all high school students, but it is easier for the district to offer Advanced Placement courses.

“There are significant cost and instructional preparation differences between AP and Dual Credit courses with AP courses being more accessible, established, and affordable and still offering students more depth and rigor than traditional high school classes,” said the spokesperson.

Through partnerships with community colleges, high schools can offer dual credit courses in multiple models.

Dual credit courses can be taught by qualified high school teachers, college professors, or college adjuncts at a local high school, on a college campus, or virtually. “In Illinois and nationally, over two-thirds of (dual credit) students attend courses located within their high schools,” the report says.

Sometimes high school teachers are teaching dual credit courses and are labeled as “adjunct college professors.”

DiGangi said that finding teachers with a credential to teach a dual credit course is difficult for school districts. To teach dual credit, a teacher may need to go back to school for additional graduate-level credentials.

“For a math teacher that teaches AP Calculus, they don’t need that,” said DiGangi. “For a math teacher to teach dual credit math, they need to get around 18 graduate hours of mathematics coursework completed.”

Right now, Zion-Benton is working with the College of Lake County to prepare an educator to teach a dual credit math course next fall.

In the past, the district worked to credential three teachers to teach dual credit courses in English and History. Providing these opportunities is easier when school districts partner up with local community colleges.

Zion-Benton’s community college partner, College of Lake County, has found that dual credit courses can be beneficial to institutions of higher education as well. For example, students are more likely to return to the college where they took classes in high school.

The community college with five locations throughout Lake County, works with 24 schools, and provides dual credit courses to about 3,000 high school students.

Sarah Stashkiw, the director of P-20 educational partnerships at Colleges of Lake County, said that of the class of 2022 seniors who took a dual credit course, 30% of those students came back to take at least one course from the community college.

“The more early exposure we can give students to a college experience and college coursework, the more likely they are to be successful long term,” said Stashkiw.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at