What is Dual Enrollment?

by Penelope Oliver | May 14, 2023 | 0 Comments
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Combining high school and college

Conventionally, college comes after high school. In recent years, however, high school students in increasing numbers have been able to take college courses alongside their high school courses.

Penelope Oliver

Penelope Oliver

This growing practice, known as dual enrollment, can significantly accelerate the path for students to earn college credit — and ultimately college degrees.

California has been a leader in enabling dual enrollment options for students. In California, a bit more than one high school student in ten is also enrolled in at least one class through a community college. 

I’m one of those students. 

Dual enrollment is increasing

My experiences as a dual-enrolled student have been good, and I feel lucky. I understand that it can be hard to make separate parts of the education system play well together. The state is actively looking for ways to identify and encourage best practices.

Like other states, California has been investing to systematically reduce barriers between high schools and community colleges so that students can advance more quickly toward degrees and/or high-value jobs. This is a complex undertaking, because there are 116 public community colleges located all over the state, of varying sizes and capacity, governed by 73 community college districts. There are many practical barriers to aligning the programs among so many organizations, including scheduling, transportation, staffing, and the names and numbers of courses.

As a step toward increasing the number of students connecting with community colleges, the Newsom administration has requested that all community colleges “develop and offer a one-unit service-learning course that all high school students would have the ability to access through dual enrollment opportunities. These service-learning opportunities would serve to encourage and enable high school students to volunteer in their local communities and to participate in civic engagement.”

How does credit work for a dual-enrolled class?

The California community college system (CCC) has been working to ensure that every dual-enrolled class is a dual-credit class, counting toward a high school diploma, as well toward a college degree. A tricky part of the work has been setting things up so that course credits can transfer to UCs, CSUs, and some private colleges. The rules still vary by college and subject. There are some caps to the amount of credit you can transfer, for example, so it’s worth checking.

How do students enroll?

According to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), “All community colleges offer some form of dual enrollment.” Community colleges in California are open-enrollment institutions; any adult can sign up to take a class, and most programs admit high school students.

Community colleges set their own processes, requirements and restrictions for enrollment. For example, some community colleges require that you are 16 years old to enroll, but others start as low as 9th grade. International and undocumented students may enroll, and in most cases, classes are free. If you have access to a guidance counselor through your high school, start there.

There are three main formal structures for dual enrollment programs in California. According to PPIC, in 2021 these programs were of similar size and accounted for about a third of all dual enrollment:

  • College and Career Access Pathways (CCAP): Instruction takes place on a high school campus, meshing with that school’s schedule. A college educator teaches the class.
  • Middle College High School (MCHS): Instruction takes place on a community college campus. According to the California Legislative Analyst (LAO), these programs are “targeted to students who are at a risk of dropping out of high school.”
  • Early College High School (ECHS): These programs generally are conducted on the campus of a high school or college. They usually “slot into” the course offerings of the high school and match the schedule of the high school, but solutions vary. For example, sometimes the classes take place online or after the school day ends.

The video below can give you a sense of what a dual enrollment experience looks like:

Dual enrollment is growing

With encouragement from the Newsom administration and the leadership of the California Community College system, dual enrollment programs in California are expanding. In 2023, EdSource completed a five-part series reporting on changes in dual enrollment in the state, including analysis of available data.

According to the EdSource analysis, access to dual enrollment opportunities has been “uneven” in California. Overall, Latino and Black students participate in dual enrollment at rates lower than Asian and white students, but rates vary from place to place (see EdSource map by college district of 2021 data).

How is dual enrollment funded?

Funding for public community colleges in California comes from the same sources as funding for K-12 — it’s part of the Proposition 98 budget, funded by a combination of state income taxes and local property taxes. So far, dual enrollment systems in California have avoided squabbling between community college districts and K-12 school districts.

School districts receive full average daily attendance (ADA) money for students enrolled through the CCAP, MCHS, and ECHS programs. For example, according to PPIC, “If dual enrollment courses for MCHS and ECHS programs are also offered to the general college population, community colleges can claim apportionment funds at a rate of $5,622 (as of 2020-21) per full-time equivalent (FTE) student.”

During the pandemic, enrollment at community colleges declined, but expansion of dual enrollment helped fill in the gap.

Why is dual enrollment gaining popularity?

Traditional dual enrollment programs in California and around the country have focused on delivering advanced curriculum to high-achieving students. Like Advanced Placement (AP) courses, dual enrollment can offer a way for students to get ahead and reduce the total cost of college.

The future of dual enrollment seems bright

“It’s sort of like killing two birds with one stone,” said Felix Gonzalez, a junior at Mesa Verde High School. “By taking these classes now, I can save a ton of time and money in the future.”

Melora Klusnick, the lead college counselor at Horizon Charter School, emphasizes that dual enrollment courses provide a way for college-bound students to distinguish themselves. “It's free, they can take classes in person or online, can take classes even in the summer, and it gives them a grade boost to their GPA that will improve their chances of being accepted to a competitive university.”

Josh Newman, Chair of the California Senate Education Committee, has been a supporter of dual enrollment. “For many groups who have been historically underrepresented in higher education, dual enrollment programs have markedly improved academic outcomes.”

The future of Dual Enrollment

There’s a saying that “what gets measured gets managed.” If true, the future of dual enrollment should be bright. Dual enrollment programs vary a lot, and a mountain of details have historically made it difficult to compare or summarize them. But transparency has improved a lot, and there’s a credible plan to increase it further. The annual report of the CCC system, scheduled for release each year by August 30, is an important document to assess progress:

  • “In the 2023 annual report, the CCC Chancellor’s Office will detail how it will establish a reliable dataset and infrastructure for dual enrollment reporting.
  • “In the 2024 annual report, the CCC Chancellor’s Office will include baseline information and the timeline, including annual targets, and approach for meeting this goal.

If you are advocating for inclusive dual enrollment programs at your school or district, resources created by EdTrust-West might be useful to you.

Penelope Oliver (She/Her/Hers) is a high school senior from Sacramento, California who has served as an Outreach Ambassador for the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders and as an Education Policy Intern for Ed100.org. Her main passions are activism, racial and gender equality, climate justice, immigration, and educational equity. She can often be found writing poetry, volunteering, or educating others about civic engagement. Follow her on Instagram at @penelopethepowerfulpoet.

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