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Report: Racial Equity Gaps in Dual Enrollment at CA Community Colleges


Dr. Christopher Nellum, executive director of The Education Trust-WestDr. Christopher Nellum, executive director of The Education Trust-WestA new report from The Education Trust-West, an advocacy organization focused on educational equity in California, found dual enrollment programs in California’s community colleges often do not equitably serve Black, Latinx, and Native American students. 

Dual enrollment allows high school students to take college courses for credit, potentially improving college access. These courses can be offered at high schools, college campuses, or online, depending on the program. 

“There has been a lot of attention, probably rightly so, on dual enrollment,” said Dr. Christopher Nellum, executive director of The Education Trust-West. “Evidence suggests that early exposure to college courses can be good for all students, particularly for students of color who are Black, Latinx, or Native American.”

The report, titled "Jumpstart: Setting Goals to Drive Equitable Dual Enrollment Participation in California’s Community Colleges", analyzed data from community colleges across the state. Research has shown that dual enrollment can improve high school completion rates, more seamlessly transition students into college, and help students save money once they are in college. This is because credits earned through dual enrollment can allow some students to graduate college faster, lowering the cost of their degree.

“Dual enrollment is seen as one lever to improve rates like college going and college persistence,” said Dr. Sherrie Reed, the executive director of the California Education Lab at the University of California, Davis, who has also studied dual enrollment. “We know from plenty of research that students who have some experience with the college environment are not only more academically prepared but also see themselves as more capable of managing college material.”

Reed added that this early exposure to college courses can help students develop a sense of belonging in higher education. Part of that phenomenon is students learn sooner how to navigate college bureaucracies like enrolling in courses. Those benefits can add up to a big, positive impact.

“So, anytime we see something that folks think will be the next big silver bullet in education, we become very interested,” said Nellum on why Education Trust-West decided to analyze racial equity in dual enrollment. “Because if you place something like dual enrollment in an inequitable structure, our question then becomes, but who is not being served?”

The report categorized community college districts based on their representation of Latinx, Black, and Native American students in dual enrollment courses relative to how many high school students there are in those groups within each of the districts. These categories were divided into three tiers: High Representation, Moderate Representation, and Low Representation.

Yet the report found that more than three in four of California’s 72 community college districts had at least one Low Representation rating. To combat such gaps, the report recommended K-12 and higher education leaders work together to set dual enrollment goals as well as engage in data collection and evaluation. 

“We want them to get data, look at it, and think constantly about who is benefitting from these free college courses—and how we can do better,” said Nellum. “And we want to be sure that data is available to the public.”

In addition, the report suggested colleges and school districts strengthen their partnerships while putting more resources behind equitable program expansion. Nellum said that bolstering recruitment strategies focused on reaching underrepresented groups could also help.

“We’re all on the lookout for strategies to improve educational opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds,” said Reed of the report’s recruitment recommendation. “We haven’t researched specific recruitment strategies, but when we put more intentional effort behind programs like dual enrollment, that can help reach more marginalized youth.”

The report also found some community college districts only need to make small changes to serve more Black, Latinx, and Native American students. Targeted recruitment strategies could be part of that shift.

“While I think by-and-large districts can do a better job at making dual enrollment available, especially to students of color, we did learn that a small number of districts wouldn’t have to do much more to yield significant results,” said Nellum.

He added that Education Trust-West’s next wants to look at the community college districts that had a high representation of Black, Latinx, and Native students participating in dual enrollment. The researchers wish to unpack what those districts are doing right—and what other districts can learn from them to do better.

With the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreading, Nellum stressed that today is an even more vital moment for community colleges to see dual enrollment programs not only as an enrollment strategy but a racial equity strategy.

“Dual enrollment can be a powerful lever to address some of what we’ve seen in the pandemic with declining community college enrollments,” said Nellum. “And we know young people are looking for ways to engage, so dual enrollment can help. But access needs to be prioritized, specifically for Black, Latinx, and Native students. Because those are the communities that continue to be the hardest hit in this pandemic.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected].

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