Emma Centeno stood on the stage last month during her Santa Ana College graduation, proudly holding up her associate of arts degree to cheering friends and family.
Two weeks later, she stood on another graduation stage, this time to receive her high school diploma.
“I was able to knock out two years of college before I even graduated high school,” said Centeno, 18, who will enroll this fall at UC Davis as a junior to study food science.
Centeno is a glowing example of a rising number of California high school students in dual enrollment programs, which allow students to take community college courses while still enrolled in high school.
Over the last few years, California has been actively encouraging more high school students to enroll in college programs because of research that shows these students are more likely to earn both a high school diploma and a college degree.
The state does not yet track the number who graduate with both a diploma and associate’s degree, but the California Community College Chancellor’s Office says the number of students taking at least one college-level course while still in high school is rapidly increasing: In the school year that just ended, nearly 50,000 high school students took at least one college course. That’s an increase of 56 percent compared to the 2012-13 school year.
“Concurrent enrollment can motivate students who aren’t on the college track and provide opportunities for students who want to get started in their careers earlier by working towards a degree or certificate in career technical education,” said state Assemblyman Chris Holden.
The numbers of dual graduates or students taking at least one community college class are expected to climb even higher in coming years as a new law now provides greater access to tuition-free community college courses for high school students statewide.
Assembly Bill 288, which went into effect in January, established the College and Career Pathways Act, with the goal of promoting more partnerships between community colleges and K-12 school districts. It allows high school students to take up to 15 units per semester of community college courses, up from a previous limit of 11 units. The law also allows college courses to be offered on high school campuses to high school students.
“Concurrent enrollment can motivate students who aren’t on the college track and provide opportunities for students who want to get started in their careers earlier by working towards a degree or certificate in career technical education,” Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, who sponsored AB 288, said in statement after the governor signed the bill.
Several studies have shown that high school students enrolled in college courses are more likely to earn high school degrees, enroll in college, enroll in a four-year college, enroll full time and remain in college. Supporters also say an increase in dual enrollment, also known as concurrent enrollment, will reduce the number of incoming college freshmen in remedial math and English classes because the program exposes them to the rigor of college at an earlier age.
“It’s clear that students who arrive to college with some college credits already under their belts have a much better chance of achieving their goals,” said Brice Harris, the recently retired California Community Colleges Chancellor.
Although the new law allows college courses to be taught at high school campuses, until now most high school students, including Centeno, were enrolled in schools based on what the state calls “middle college high” or “early college high” models.
These programs are contained entirely at a community college, with students taking all their high school and college coursework at the college campus. The high school students generally take their college-level courses alongside other community college students.
Centeno was enrolled in Santa Ana Unified’s Middle College High School, where courses are taught by district teachers. The school is housed in buildings of Santa Ana College, one of 112 campuses in the California Community College system, which is where Centeno also took her college courses.
Before this year, students in more traditional high schools had to travel to community colleges to take classes after school or during the summer. They also needed special waivers from their counselors, teachers or parents to take the community college courses if they were under 18 years old.
Centeno’s Middle College High’s class of 2016 had 77 graduates. Sixty of them earned associate degrees from Santa Ana College, which meant they had enough credits to start college as juniors. Five years ago, fewer than 20 Middle College High students earned diplomas and associate’s degrees simultaneously.
“We’re seeing these types of programs grow exponentially because parents, students and educators see that most students can handle some college-level work, with the right support, even before they graduate high school,” said Kathy Apps, the principal at Middle College High.
Gabriel Garcia, another Middle College High graduate with an associate’s degree, said, “It’s definitely more rigorous to take both high school and college classes at the same time. It requires a lot of discipline. But it’s also providing a great opportunity for a lot of high school students to get a sense of what college is really like.”