Programs that allow students to earn high school and college credit at the same time are seen as an effective way to boost college success rates. However, numerous legislative efforts over the past decade to expand opportunities for students to take the courses have withered.
Advocates argue that California should make it easier for students to access the courses, which are growing in popularity across the nation as educational reforms increasingly focus on better preparing students to succeed after high school.
“There’s a broad consensus of evidence showing (dual enrollment’s) effectiveness not just in providing a student a head start on college, but also in preparing them to be successful in college and career later on as well,” said Christopher Cabaldon, executive director of the Linked Learning Alliance, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that advocates for career pathway programs that link academics with work experience.
“There’s been pretty broad consensus that it’s valuable, but the (California educational) code is still riddled with barrier after barrier,” Cabaldon said.
Dual enrollment, also known as concurrent enrollment, allows high school students to enroll in community college courses and earn credits they can apply toward a college degree while also progressing toward a high school diploma. Research suggests that students who participate in the programs graduate from high school and enroll in college at higher rates, are less likely to require remedial courses and are more likely to earn college degrees.
“We essentially treat dual enrollment in California almost like a felony,” said Christopher Cabaldon, executive director of the Linked Learning Alliance.
California law limits the number of college units that high school students can earn through dual enrollment. State law also caps the number of students who can enroll in summer courses (although exemptions exist for specific academic courses) and caps the number of students who can take physical education courses during the summer. The limits were set after past abuses in which some college campuses claimed state funding for programs that amounted to little more than football practice.
Lawmakers have tried numerous times to amend state law, proposing bill after bill to loosen the requirements to give campuses more flexibility to offer the courses while including what they say are safeguards against misuse.
The current dual enrollment limit of 11 course units per term – about three classes – is too restrictive and can hamper students’ ability to access laboratory or other rigorous courses, which often count for a higher number of units than other courses, advocates argue. And high school students are typically assigned a lower priority than other students when trying to enroll in community college courses, which can leave them at a disadvantage when trying to access rigorous courses.
‘Make it easier’
“We’ve got to make it easier,” said former Pasadena Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who notes the success the programs have in boosting college-going rates of low-income students, and those who are first in their families to attend college.
Portantino tried at least four times to significantly alter dual enrollment during his eight years in the Legislature, with the efforts stalling in Legislative appropriations committees.
“If you look at our K-12 model, it was geared toward a different time of our economy,” Portantino said. “To me, we should move to a K-14 model. For students who want to articulate into a post-secondary degree, this will help them. And those students who are going to go into the workforce, they’re going to need more than just a high school diploma.”
At least nine bills to change dual enrollment policies were proposed between 2004 and 2011 alone, one analysis said. Several of those efforts stalled in appropriations, the analysis said, although the Legislature did approve measures that allowed for exemptions to the cap on summer courses for students seeking college-level transferrable courses, those attending vocational or career education programs, or those who needed additional help to pass the high school exit exam.
Just this year, at least three proposed bills would alter the state’s dual enrollment policies, and a similar number were proposed last year.
One of the latest bills, Assembly Bill 288, is a follow-up to what many saw as a promising, yet failed attempt last year by Portantino’s successor, Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, to offer campuses more flexibility in offering the courses. Holden’s bill last year, AB 1451, died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
AB 1451 would have raised the unit cap to 15 units, would have required K-12 districts and community colleges to forge partnerships to better coordinate academic and career education offerings and would have made it easier to offer college courses on high school campuses.
In their analyses of the various bills, legislative staffers have cited concerns over potential costs and program oversight.
The exact costs are impossible to calculate, because it’s unclear how many additional high school students will ultimately enroll in college courses, said an analysis of AB 1451. Yet any growth could create “substantial ongoing” pressure to increase state funding for community college enrollments, the analysis said.
The analysis also raised concern about what it says is lax oversight of caps already in place, specifically a law that limits the number of high school students who can enroll in summer courses. No state agency enforced the caps or collected data to determine if the caps were exceeded, the analysis said – raising the issue that led to the current rules in the first place.
Many of the current laws were enacted in the early 2000s, after a series of high-profile abuses of dual enrollment. In one Orange County case, some college campuses were improperly claiming funding for students who were taking physical education courses or participating in football practice at their high school campus. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed withholding $80 million from the community college budget in 2003-04 as penalty, and the legislative limits were born.
The efforts to clamp down on abuse also came as California was entering the recession, forcing budget cuts that were limiting course options for regularly enrolled community college students.
The most recent legislative efforts aim to address many of those concerns, and include provisions that would guard against “double dipping” by preventing K-12 districts and community colleges from both receiving enrollment funding for the same student.
Holden’s latest bill, AB 288, also stipulates that any expansion of dual enrollment could not displace traditional community college students.
The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office supports AB 288, as it did last year’s AB 1451.
Dual enrollment offers students early exposure to college and holds promise in decreasing the number of students who enter community colleges needing remedial work, community college officials said. The majority of incoming community college freshmen need extra help in math, English or both, and research shows that most of those will drop out before completing a college degree.
“Whatever we can do to ensure that students come to us ready to do college-level work in math or English is really important,” said Vincent Stewart, vice chancellor for governmental relations with the Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
Still, any dual enrollment expansion could put additional pressure on finite resources and raise the question of “mission creep” at community colleges, said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.
“Community colleges are now moving into even granting four-year degrees on one end,” Boilard said, referring to a new law that sets up a pilot program allowing some campuses to offer bachelor’s degrees in vocational fields, “and are moving into a more K-12 area on the other end. It really does suggest a very broad mission.”
High school students can also access dual enrollment courses through California’s network of middle and early college high schools. The programs, most of which are located on community college campuses, allow students to earn up to 60 transferrable college credits while they complete high school. Many students will graduate with an associate degree and a high school diploma.
About 34,300 K-12 students in California were enrolled in credit-bearing community college courses in fall 2014, according to community college data.
Advocates argue it’s time to bring more flexibility to California’s dual enrollment policies, which are gaining popularity nationwide.
“We essentially treat dual enrollment in California almost like a felony,” said the Linked Learning Alliance’s Cabaldon. “We’re one of the few states where, when we think of dual enrollment, our main interest is in guarding against abuse and not really the benefits of it.”
In 2010-11, 82 percent of high schools across the nation had students who participated in dual enrollment programs, with about half of that enrollment – or 601,500 students – in career technical education programs focusing on specific employment areas, according to a 2014 report from the Education Commission of the States. That’s compared to about 400,000 students who participated in career education dual enrollment programs in 2002-03, the report said.
Gov. Jerry Brown has also signaled support for better coordination between K-12 and community colleges, especially for efforts that promote college graduation and lead to a better-prepared workforce.
Brown has signed off on budget deals over the past two years that have included a combined $500 million for the California Career Pathways Trust, a grant program that promotes career education opportunities for students, especially those that promise stronger partnerships between schools, colleges and businesses.
And the governor recently handed out $50 million in “innovation award” grants to colleges and universities for projects that streamline college completion, including programs that promote dual enrollment.
Holden hopes this year’s AB 288 could be the bill that brings some movement to efforts to alter dual enrollment limits.
The bill is more narrowly focused than last year’s AB 1451, in that it would allow K-12 and community college districts to create formalized “College and Career Access Pathways” partnership agreements that would allow them to tailor dual enrollment to fit both student and campus needs.
The provision is modeled after the 2011 Long Beach College Promise Partnership Act, a law that allowed the Long Beach Unified School District and the Long Beach Community College District to forge agreements that expanded the use of dual enrollment. The number of Long Beach students completing college-level math and English has soared since the partnership was enacted, and the number of students who need remedial coursework upon entering the city college has decreased, according to information from Holden’s office.
The bill would also increase the course-unit cap to 15 units and would no longer put high school students on the lowest priority list when signing up for courses. The bill also requires that districts provide a detailed, annual report on their dual enrollment to the state Legislature, the Department of Finance and the state superintendent of public instruction; current limits on summer enrollment and physical education requirements would not be altered, Stewart said.
AB 288 would also make it easier to offer college courses on high school campuses – a provision of past bills that has raised concern from K-12 and community college faculty groups who question how the courses will be structured, and who will teach them. The bill stipulates that no high school or college faculty could be displaced if dual enrollment opportunities are expanded.
Neither the community college faculty association nor the California Teachers Association, which represents K-12 teachers, have taken a position on AB 288, and Holden has already introduced amendments to the bill to assuage some faculty concerns.
Holden is hopeful the bill will pass this year, yet understands the legislative process that has stalled past efforts.
“We’re trying to find the right balance, and it’s very fragile,” Holden said.
“We do believe the benefits of the bill are really solid,” he said, “and the benefit to the students is very clear. If we could get the measure on the governor’s desk, I think the governor would be willing to support it.”