The Varsity Blues scandal, in which wealthy parents paid bribes to get their kids into elite universities, laid bare a hard truth about college admissions in California: Opportunity is not equal.
Public educators and policymakers should take Varsity Blues as a challenge to level the playing field for students who aspire to go to the best colleges, no matter their backgrounds. They could start by giving more students access to a college preparatory opportunity that can help them succeed: dual enrollment.
Susana Cooper and Michal Kurlaender
Special to CALmatters
The practice of allowing high school students to take college-level courses while they are still in high school, earning simultaneous credit toward both high school graduation and an eventual college degree, is increasing in popularity nationwide for a reason.
It’s good for students, good for high schools, and good for community colleges, which are the primary vehicle for dual enrollment.
A strong research base shows that dual enrollment is strongly associated with better student outcomes, including high school graduation, enrollment and persistence in college, and more efficient earning of BA degrees.
High schools benefit from those higher graduation rates, and by being able to offer students more course options and variety. Colleges benefit by building stronger ties with their feeder high schools and by increasing enrollment and the revenue that comes with it. Any practice that increases college going and persistence, and shortens time to degree, has especially high value in California, where the education pipeline is heavily clogged.
Given these benefits, there’s good news for California: The practice of dual enrollment is more prevalent here than once thought. A report from the Wheelhouse center at the University of California, Davis, reveals that 12.6% of high school students enrolled in a community college course at some point during their high school years, six times higher than earlier estimates.
While There’s Progress, Work Remains
In the absence of a statewide data system that follows students across education segments, this analysis was made possible by an unprecedented match of two separate K-12 and community college statewide data sets.
That match enabled us to see that, while overall participation may be higher than anticipated, dual enrollment opportunity is far from equal.
Asian American students are more than twice as likely to enroll in college-level courses as African American students. And there are 1,260 high schools in California—82% of our statewide sample—in which zero students are dual enrolled.
So while there’s progress, there’s work to be done.
Fortunately, old strictures on dual enrollment in have loosened. A 2015 state law enabled the formation of dual enrollment partnerships among high schools and local community colleges.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled his support for dual enrollment, proposing funds to support books and materials for dual enrollment students statewide. In an era of declining enrollment for many community colleges, dual enrollment makes good fiscal sense.
In public education, as in life, there are few instances in which everybody wins. With its multifold benefits, dual enrollment is a notable exception. But for dual enrollment to be a true leveler of the uneven playing field revealed by Varsity Blues, the dual enrollment onramp needs to be open to more of the students who need it most.
About the Authors
Susanna Cooper is executive director of Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research at UC Davis, Scooper@ucdavis.edu. Michal Kurlaender is department chair of the UC Davis School of Education, and lead researcher for Wheelhouse, email@example.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.