Growing numbers of California high schoolers dual enroll in college courses, but access uneven statewide

Growing numbers of California high schoolers dual enroll in college courses, but access uneven statewide

Earning college credit in high school can be a powerful tool for exposing students to universities and helping them get a leg up on tuition and earning a degree. But access to those courses remains uneven across California.

In many areas of the state, Latino and Black students are disproportionately underrepresented in dual enrollment classes, an EdSource analysis shows. The causes can vary between high schools and colleges but include misconceptions about who should take dual enrollment classes, few instructors, a lack of available courses, and a lack of awareness by students, families and high school counselors about the programs.

Aliha Vega, 18, of Long Beach, was a freshman when she experienced being shut out. She wanted to earn college credit but was denied the opportunity when a counselor concluded she wasn’t ready for college-level work.

At the time, the counselor asked Vega if she could “manage it” and encouraged her to enroll in honors high school courses instead, which are not as difficult as college-level classes for college credit.

“It’s an issue when students of color walk in and ask for help with the application to do this and get shut down,” she said. “When that counselor ended up retiring, a new counselor came in, and I pushed for it again.”

Once she got into the courses as a sophomore, Vega, a Latina, said she noticed low-income students and students of color were missing.

Her journey reflects a core issue around dual enrollment: that the program, while growing across California and nationwide, needs to reach out to more students.

College and student advocates say dual enrollment can be a powerful tool for opening even more pathways to college degrees “for Black, Latinx, and Native students who have historically been underrepresented in higher education,” said Mayra Lara, associate director of educator engagement at The Education Trust-West. “We really should be expanding the definition of who should be enrolled in dual enrollment to all students.”

Dual enrollment, or concurrent enrollment, has been increasing across California for the past six years. In 2015, nearly 49,000 high school students enrolled in a community college class. Last fall, that number had increased to more than 114,000 students, data show. So much so that community colleges, which saw a historic loss of students over the pandemic, are seeing double-digit increases in high school students dual enrolling. But who gets to enroll in those college courses varies across the state.

EdSource’s analysis of community college dual enrollment programs shows that most districts are enrolling a lower percentage of Black and Latino students than are attending the high schools within their boundaries. Fifty-nine of the 72 districts analyzed had a lower percentage of Latino high school students and 52 had a lower percentage of Black students. (The analysis does not include the district for Calbright College, the state’s only online community college.)

In the nine community college districts where Native and Indigenous students make up at least 1% of the high school population, the students in all but one district are underrepresented in dual enrollment courses. One district, Redwoods Community College District, underenrolls Native and Indigenous students by more than 8%.

Meanwhile, only 16 community college districts had a lower percentage of Asian students, and 56 had an overrepresentation of Asians compared with their high school enrollments.

Representation of Black students was lower at 51 of the 72 districts, with the lowest being Solano, Antelope Valley, Long Beach and San Francisco districts. (Calbright, the online college, is not included in the analysis.)

The analysis also revealed that the West Kern community college district enrolled a larger percentage of Latinos from area high schools. The Central Valley district ranks highest in the state for attracting Latino students to dual enrollment courses. The district has over 73% of Latino students in dual enrollment classes in 2021, although Latinos make up 55.5% of the high school population.

Benefits of dual enrollment

Dual enrollment comes in several forms including high schoolers taking college courses at their schools or at the community colleges which are usually free; students attending specially designated Early or Middle College high schools whose program includes students earning college associate degrees; students taking courses at California State Universities and private institutions across the state; and students enrolling in college courses offered at both in- and out-of-state institutions. Not every option is free to students.

For high schoolers, benefits include college credit that helps them earn an associate degree even before they graduate high school, experience in a college course and lower tuition costs when they do enroll in college.

Colleges are finding that students who don’t get access to dual enrollment courses face setbacks when they do enroll in a four-year university.

Cal Poly Pomona, for example, examined the number of college credits given to incoming freshmen and found that on average Black, Latino and Native students brought in 10% fewer credits as freshmen than their peers from other groups, said Terri Gomez, associate provost for student success, equity and innovation on the campus.

“We want students to take 15 units a term or 30 a year,” Gomez said. “If you’re not coming in with any college credit, then you can’t afford to miss one of those classes or fail one of those classes because you’re going to fall behind in credit accumulation. If you have dual enrollment, you can decide that you will only take 12 credits this term because you already brought in four units through dual enrollment.”

Once she was allowed to enroll in college courses, Vega made them part of her college-going plan. She graduated from high school this spring with more than 50 college credits and was able to enroll at the University of California Berkeley, with sophomore status using 20 of those credits. Without dual enrollment she wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition on the Berkeley campus, she said.

Student advocates say one reason access to dual enrollment is uneven across California is because information about it is “unevenly distributed to students,” said Michal Kurlaender, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education and lead researcher of Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research at UC Davis.

Historically, high schoolers learn about dual enrollment because someone in their school encourages them to take the class. Typically, that person may have taken a dual enrollment class, Kurlaender said. Vega, the former Long Beach student, for example, learned about dual enrollment through friends already taking those classes in her high school.

“All of these things really matter, especially for low-income and first-generation kids who are unlikely to necessarily have a peer like their siblings or their parents do anything like that,” she said.

There’s also been a misperception that dual enrollment classes are only for gifted, high-achieving or students with high GPAs. Kurlaender said they are often grouped with other advanced-type high school courses.

“We should hold schools more accountable to ensure that this is an important experience we want all high schoolers to have, which is some exposure to college-level experience,” Kurlaender said. She urged “some accountability” so students learn about options to take dual enrollment courses.

Finding instructors to teach in high schools is another challenge. Unlike honors or AP classes, dual enrollment courses are college classes, and instructors must have a master’s degree in the specific field they’re teaching or an equivalent alternative.

Pasadena Community College District said it wants to expand its program, but finding people to teach college courses to high schoolers is difficult. Still, the Pasadena district has been able to enroll Black and Latino students on par with their numbers in area high schools.

“We’re growing quickly, and it’s been a little bit more challenging to find the right faculty members or even qualified faculty members,” said Raquel Torres-Retana, a campus dean over the district’s educational partnerships.

For example, the college wanted to offer Mandarin at a nearby high school but struggled to find an instructor. Weeks before the class started, Torres-Retana said, they found a native Mandarin speaker who was “able, capable and qualified to teach a Mandarin class,” but her master’s degree was in education. That instructor had to go through an “equivalency process,” and a committee of college faculty and staff had to review her credentials and approve her teaching ability.

Removing barriers

In San Diego, EdSource’s analysis found, the community college enrolled 15% fewer Latino students than were eligible for dual enrollment. San Diego Community College District has dual enrollment agreements with about 20 local high schools but primarily works with San Diego Unified.

Amertah Perman, dean of career education and workforce development at San Diego Community College District, said the pandemic hurt enrollment of Latino, Black and Native American students nationally and in California. Still, there are other reasons for the underenrollment of Latinos.

“A lot of it is tied to the relationship of the counselor and the student and the parent, in terms of gatekeepers and how you get into these programs, whether or not you’re encouraged to participate in these programs and whether or not people feel the student will succeed,” Perman said.

Lara, with The Ed Trust-West, said insufficient funding for dual enrollment and the inability to expand programs has also made them inequitable. Decisions in dual enrollment programs are hyperlocal, which means what is offered in one area may be completely different in another. Some classes are offered directly within a high school, while others may provide transportation to the college campus, Lara said.

“Funding is the main issue often preventing (school districts) and community college districts from scaling or expanding partnerships to ensure that more students have the opportunity to both enroll and be supported to succeed,” Lara said.

The other issue is that there are multiple pathways to college in California, and some are less transparent than others, Kurlaender said, explaining that students with less access to information and advising are at a disadvantage.

“The students systematically are harmed by that because they don’t necessarily know the rules,” she said.

How higher schoolers participate is also important, Kurlaender said.

“Is your high school going to make it an extra thing or are they going to give you (high school) credit,” she said. “Awareness is just the first piece, but we could really smooth out the pathway for students and make it easier for them.”

Making it easier for them would mean helping them register for dual enrollment classes, telling them if the class satisfies their high school graduation requirements or if the credit can be transferred to a Cal State or UC institution, Kurlaender said.

Ultimately students choose the courses they want to take.

In Santa Barbara, the community colleges offer many career-training pathways with Santa Barbara Unified, including construction technology, automotive and nursing assistants. The college has formal dual enrollment partnerships with two nearby school districts — Santa Barbara Unified and Carpinteria Unified — where high school students can participate in up to 100 courses. Last fall, the college’s dual enrollment of Latinos — the largest ethnic/racial group among the feeder high schools — was nearly 19% lower than the pool of Latino high school students in its area.

Angelica Contreras, director of admissions and records for the Santa Barbara college, said they could “certainly do better” in encouraging Latino participation.

“The students that are sitting in those courses are mostly our students of color that are interested in those courses because they’re more hands-on programs,” said Angelica Contreras, adding that they are not enrolling in math or English college-level classes. “We know that we have some work to do with college readiness.”

Contreras said one solution the college uses to increase participation is engaging an entire student’s family. In April, the college held an event and invited high school students and their families to visit the campus and learn how Santa Barbara would remove all the barriers preventing them from attending college classes.

“We’re going to pay for books, we’re going to pay for all the materials and courses, we’re going to help you every step of the way,” Contreras said. “We had 100 students sign up for the event, and on the day of, we had 440 students, and by far those students and family members were people of color.”

Closing the gap

The San Diego colleges also want to tackle the racial disparities in its dual enrollment programs and has started examining what’s happening at specific schools.

For example, the district has a 2% gap in representation among Black students in dual enrollment programs, which may not be alarming when Black students make up just 8% of the population in the high schools served by the San Diego colleges. But Perman said when the district looks at specific high schools that “have a very high percentage of Black students, but an incredibly low number of Black students in these early college credit opportunities … we need to design different kinds of interventions for that particular school.”

San Diego also has a more than 15% representation gap between Latino students enrolled in those dual enrollment programs and the pool of Latino high school students in the area, according to the EdSource analysis.

The San Diego/Imperial Regional Consortium organized a regional counselor conference for high school and community college advisers to come together and talk about the shift in perspective about dual enrollment classes being offered to every student, as well as the challenges they face in opening access to students in a way that both protects and guides them, Perman said.

San Diego, for example, has started to offer more tutoring to dual enrollment students to help them succeed in those classes.

“No one wants to encourage a student to participate in something they’re not going to do well in,” she said. “But where do those assumptions come from, and can we challenge them and also provide students with the support so that they can not only access these programs but do well in them too.”

EdSource Reporter Emma Gallegos contributed to this story.

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