Taking college classes in high school helps students earn degrees down the road

USC Education Professor Zoe Corwin talks to high school students playing the college-going game Graduate Strike Force.
USC Education Professor Zoe Corwin talks to high school students playing the college-going game Graduate Strike Force.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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A new study finds that more high school students earn a college degree – and do it more quickly – if they’ve taken community college classes at their high school.

The classes are known as dual enrollment courses, and the number of high school students enrolled in them has grown dramatically in the last decade as states such as California have passed laws to make it easier for public schools and community colleges to draft agreements to create the classes. 

“Among students who took dual enrollment in high school and then after high school first matriculated in a community college, 46 percent got a college degree of some sort: associates, certificate, or bachelors within five years,” said Columbia University researcher Davis Jenkins, a co-author of the study.

That’s a good rate, he said, because among high school students who did not take dual enrollment classes and began community college after high school, just 39 percent ended up earning a degree of some sort or certificate within six years.

But mostly missing in the growth of the courses, Jenkins said, are policies to track students after dual enrollment classes to find out if the overarching goal of the classes is being met: to get a college degree in the students’ hands.

“That’s where the national study has broken some ground,” said Traci Fahimi, a dean at Irvine Valley College who oversees dual enrollment programs at nearby El Toro High School and Beckman High School.

“We have not been tracking our students. We track them as far as getting their certificate and or [associates degree] and we ask them how many are university bound and most them are,” she said.

Tracking can yield some important data, she said, about what’s working and what’s not in dual enrollment at the two high schools.

“The program is identical at both schools but there is one difference: we have a bit heavier counseling support for the Beckman [High School] program,” she said and that’s leading more students at that school to take enough dual enrollment classes to nearly complete an associates’ degree.

Study co-author Jenkins said California education officials could help more students taking dual enrollment classes earn a degree by improving counseling.

“In California the rate is much lower – only 29 percent of students who took dual enrollment in community and started in community college after high school got some kind of college degree after high school,” he said.

This study doesn’t reveal the reasons, he said, but he believes better tracking, advising, and clearer explanation to students of the academic paths toward degrees would help. California officials are making improvements.

Before the growth of dual enrollment programs most of the high school students taking community college classes were “elite” students who were advanced in their studies and of higher economic class. Dual enrollment is expanding the early college experience to other demographics. The study found that nearly two thirds of students in dual enrollment classes nationwide in 2010 were low or middle income.

Administrators at Glendale College say they have similar demographics. They’re making improvements to college counseling too.

“For us, we have our heart and soul in it and we’re really excited about how we move forward and what we do and how that’s going to affect the generation to come,” said Meg Chil-Gevorkyan, dual enrollment coordinator at Glendale College.

Her campus offers 26 dual enrollment classes at eight different high schools in Glendale, Burbank, and Los Angeles and predicts a 10 percent growth next year.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story did not have Davis Jenkins correct first name. KPCC regrets the error.