Searching for equity in dual enrollment for California high school students

October 27, 2021

Students from Oakland's Coliseum College Prep Academy learn ballet fundamentals in Modern Dance — a dual enrollment class at the high school campus taught by Laney College professor Carolyn Himes.

A growing number of California students are participating in dual enrollment courses — college classes taken while still in high school.

But making dual enrollment courses equitable and accessible to even more students hinges on a variety of factors. Experts say these include hiring more qualified instructors, ensuring that course offerings can be used for college credit and making sure students have access to the kinds of resources and support that are available to other college students.

Dual enrollment classes are either taught at a high school campus by a college instructor, or high school students take the classes at a college campus. The number of high school students in California participating in dual enrollment has increased from 72,000 in the 2015-16 graduating class to more than 112,000 in 2019-20, according to new research from the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Still, whether students have access to a dual enrollment course largely depends on the high school they attend. Nearly 75% of high schools in California have dual enrollment participation rates below 30%, and one-quarter of them have fewer than 10%, according to a report from the UC Davis Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research.

There are also racial disparities in access to dual enrollment classes. Even though there is an increasing number of students of all races participating in dual enrollment, the demographics of dual enrollment are not proportional to overall high school enrollments. Latino students account for 55% of high school enrollment in California but only 45% of students in dual enrollment are Latino. Black students are also underrepresented, while white and Asian students are overrepresented, according to PPIC.

“So on the one hand, we see that there’s been clear growth for all groups in participation of this important opportunity,” Michal Kurlaender, a professor of education at UC Davis, said during a webinar Tuesday hosted by the College Futures Foundation. “However, on the other hand, we also know there are persistent disparities by race, with Asian and white students participating in dual enrollment at significantly higher rates than their Latinx and Black peers.”

There are also disparities in student outcomes in dual enrollment courses. For example, across all dual enrollment programs, Black and Latino students have a grade point average of 2.9, while white and Asian students have grade point averages of 3.2 and 3.4, respectively, according to PPIC. On average, Black and Latino students also earn fewer units than their white and Asian peers.

Olga Rodriguez, a senior fellow at PPIC, said during Tuesday’s webinar that one key to making dual enrollment more equitable is simply finding teachers.

“One of the biggest challenges to expanding dual enrollment is finding instructors who meet minimum qualifications,” she said, something she added is more difficult for courses like math and English that require instructors to have master’s degrees.

The PPIC report highlighted an effort in Fresno to help high school math and English teachers obtain master’s degrees in order to teach those dual enrollment courses. The Fresno K–16 Collaborative focuses on “upskilling” high school math and English teachers, according to PPIC, by providing funding to them as they pursue master’s degrees.

Rodriguez also suggested that colleges reduce the number of remedial classes they offer as part of dual enrollment programs. Remedial classes can’t be used as transferable credits to four-year universities. According to PPIC, 11% of dual enrollment courses are remedial classes.

“Non-transferable courses are a cause for concern, as they do not necessarily align with dual enrollment’s key goal, which is to accelerate students’ progress toward a college degree by helping them earn college credit while in high school,” the PPIC report states.

Another key to making sure students succeed in dual enrollment programs is to view them the same as any other community college student, said Aisha Lowe, vice chancellor for education services and support at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

“We need to make sure they have access to all of the supports and resources that any other student on campus would have,” Lowe said. That includes not only academic resources like tutoring, but also mental health support and basic needs resources such as food pantries.

One school that has tried to accomplish that is Design Science Middle College High School, a magnet school in Fresno Unified. Students take a mix of high school and college courses at the school, which is located on Fresno City College’s campus.

Being located on the Fresno City College campus has given students greater access to academic counseling, psych services and instructors, said Tressa Overstreet, the former principal of the school.

At Design Science Middle College High School, students spend their first two years taking high school classes and a few college courses. In years three and four, they have a full course load of college classes. They earn not only a high school diploma but also up to 60 units that can be transferred to a California State University or University of California campus.

Overstreet said 100% of the school’s students are admitted to a four-year university. Overstreet has since left the school for a position in Fresno Unified’s district office and said during the webinar that she is hoping to expand the school’s practices across the district.

“This little school is just a shining star of what could be, and we truly believe that we have so many students in our valley that are just craving hope,” she said.

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