Taking college courses during high school puts students on track to succeed in high school and college, but even as dual enrollment programs have rapidly grown in California, the students most in need of that academic boost don’t always have access to it.
EdSource’s reporting has demonstrated that Black and Latino high school students tend to be underrepresented in dual enrollment courses throughout the state. Panelists at EdSource’s roundtable “Dual enrollment: How to increase access for all students” discussed ways to ensure that dual enrollment opportunities are available equitably.
Research shows that students who take dual enrollment courses perform better in high school and college, and they’re less likely to take basic skills courses in college, said Olga Rodriguez, director of the Public Policy Institute of California Higher Education Center.
“It’s very clear that giving access to dual enrollment is good for both high school and college student outcomes overall,” Rodriguez said. “Targeting the expansion to groups that haven’t traditionally been served with limited resources is a good strategy forward.”
Dual enrollment courses are often compared to other kinds of advanced coursework, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. There’s also a long history of high school students independently taking college courses after school or during summers.
Each of these types of courses offers benefits for different kinds of students, said James Espinoza, principal of Middle College High School in San Bernardino City Unified. AP might make sense for a high-achieving student who seeks an extra point in their GPA, while a middle college high school may propel an average student to greater success in high school and college. Middle college high schools are located on college campuses and allow students to earn up to 60 units of college credit. There is a renewed effort in California to target and support average students in these schools.
“There are many opportunities to earn college credit, they’re not competing against each other,” Espinoza said.
But school systems need to learn to be strategic with their resources. Dual enrollment still has a relatively limited scope in California, and Espinoza said it should be focused on providing a “seamless pathway” to college for first-generation and underserved students.
Kern County, where college graduation rates are low, is home to one of the fastest-growing dual enrollment programs in the state. Bakersfield College has made a big push into local high schools in rural communities by encouraging every high school student to take a college course. Brianna Zatarain, a graduate of Robert F. Kennedy High School in Delano, said college counselors were very helpful in pushing all students, not just high-achieving or honors students, to take dual enrollment courses.
“I think that they’re for everyone,” she said. “If the student is willing to put in the work, I think they can pass the class and get the college credit.”
Many students, such as Zatarain, prefer the courses. AP course credit hinges on passing one test at the end of the year, while students who do their work and get at least a C will end up with college credit. She also enjoyed the extra layers of support that were built into her dual enrollment courses.
Providing support, particularly for first-generation students and others underrepresented in college, is crucial for students to tackle advanced coursework, said Espinoza.
“We have to teach our parents and students that college classes are not high school classes. They are hard,” he said. “If we lower the standard of those classes, that is not equitable.”
Middle College High School in San Bernardino City Unified offers support that includes a daily tutoring period, regular progress updates to make sure students are on track and a routinely updated individual college and career plan for each student.
A key barrier to expanding dual enrollment throughout the state is finding qualified instructors, panelists said. Dual enrollment courses, unlike AP courses, require teachers to have a master’s degree or equivalent field experience in the subject they’re teaching.
To increase the pool of qualified instructors, schools and colleges are partnering together to encourage English or math high school teachers to pursue a master’s degree in the field they teach. This enables them to teach college-level courses in their schools. Rodriguez noted that this work is being done mostly in the Central Valley, by the Fresno-Madera K-16 Collective and the Kern Regional K-16 Education Collaborative.
Espinoza believes that the state should also consider encouraging aspiring teachers to consider this while they’re working on their credential.
Pasadena City College is working hard to meet the “explosion” of demand for dual enrollment in its local high schools, said Raquel Torres-Retana, the college’s dean of the Rosemead & Northwest campuses and educational partnerships.
Key to meeting this demand has been tapping adjunct professors. The college has also worked to drum up interest from full-time professors who are open to switching gears and teaching high school students. Recently, the college hired a coordinator to recruit dual enrollment instructors from within the college.
“He’s literally getting on the phone with his colleagues throughout different divisions and selling them on dual enrollment,” said Torres-Retana.
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