At least 1 in 8 California high school seniors take community college courses while still in high school, an increasingly popular strategy that gives students a head start on their college careers, and has been shown to boost both high school and college graduation rates.
A new study from the Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research at the UC Davis School of Education provides the most specific figures yet about how many students in California participate in so-called “dual enrollment” programs.
It found that 12.6 percent of high school seniors in 2016-17 enrolled in these programs at some point in their four years in high school. Researchers said they expect today’s rates to be even higher.
At the same time, despite the relatively high number of students taking college courses, the study also showed that participation in these programs is uneven statewide. Some districts like Oakland and Compton Unified have robust dual enrollment programs. But the study showed that students come from a relatively small proportion of the state’s high schools. In four out of five of the state’s high schools, no students were participating in dual enrollment high schools in 2016-17, the last year data was available.
“The overwhelming majority of high schools in which zero students are engaged in dual enrollment offers another stark testament to the uneven landscape of education opportunity in California,” the UC Davis researchers concluded.
The study also found that compared to white and Asian students, lower percentages of students who are low-income or whose parents did not graduate from high school — as well as Latino and African American students — take college courses.
Before this report, the prevailing view was that California lagged behind other states and the nation in the program, the report’s authors said. That’s because the California Department of Education did not require high schools to report dual enrollment, and the data was not complete. The California Department of Education recently changed its reporting requirements, though, making the data for the 2016-17 school year available.
Researchers combined that data with data from the California Community Colleges, and were able to show that more students than previously thought were enrolled in in dual enrollment courses.
Dual enrollment is a “powerful tool for student success,” a 2018 report by Jobs for the Future and the Career Ladders Project, both non-profit research and policy organizations in Oakland, pointed out. But that report noted that “compared to many other states, California has been slow to embrace this proven approach,” and only a small percentage of those eligible to participate are doing so.
Over the last few years, however, California has been actively encouraging more high school students to enroll in college programs. These efforts got a boost from a 2015 law (Assembly Bill 288) signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown establishing the College and Career Access Pathways program.
Among other things, the law for the first time allowed community colleges to offer courses on high school campuses that were open only to students there, not to the entire community, and to require students to have free textbooks.
The California community colleges view dual enrollment programs as an important element of its “Vision for Success” initiative designed to substantially increase transfer and graduation rates. According to the community colleges, most students taking dual enrollment classes complete at least nine units before entering college, and those students “are far more likely to succeed once they get there.”
In an indication of the value California is now placing on these programs, Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall signed several bills designed to encourage greater participation by removing a range of bureaucratic obstacles. One of them extended the 2015 law, which was due to sunset in 2022, until 2027. Last month, Newsom also proposed to include an additional $5 million for instructional materials for students in dual enrollment programs in next year’s budget.
There are several forms of dual enrollment programs. Some school districts partner with community colleges to bring professors who teach classes on high school campuses exclusively for students there. In other cases, students go the college campus itself to enroll in a course. A small number of districts have established what are called “middle college” or “early college” high schools — small high schools actually located on college campuses that allow students then to take college courses concurrently.
In some cases, students get both high school and college credit for the college courses they take. In other cases — typically called concurrent rather than dual enrollment — they only get college credit.
High school students are eligible to enroll in any community college in the state without charge as long as they are enrolled in courses that earn them less than 12 units.
By far the largest proportion of California students who take dual enrollment classes in high school earned between 3 and 6 college credits, the equivalent of up to two courses, the Wheelhouse report said. About 1 in 10 students didn’t earn any credits, indicating that they failed to complete the course requirements
Michal Kurlaender, a UC Davis School of Education professor and one of three coauthors of the Wheelhouse Center study, said the disparities show that the pipeline to college that dual enrollment programs provide — like many other initiatives to promote college access — has cracks.
Kurlaender said that both school districts and community college can do much more to ensure “reasonable access” to college level coursework, and that more analysis is needed to understand dual enrollment patterns and outcomes.
“We very much want to make sure that students who have any economic instabilities or financial constraints see this as an opportunity,” Kurlaender said.
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