Policy brief

A Leg Up on College

The Scale and Distribution of Community College Participation Among California High School Students
Elizabeth Friedmann
University of California, Davis
Michal Kurlaender
University of California, Davis
Alice Li
University of California, Davis
Russell W. Rumberger
University of California, Santa Barbara


Research shows that dual enrollment—a practice in which high school students take college courses while they are still in high school—has multiple benefits for student success in both systems. To capitalize on those benefits, California and other states have moved in recent years to increase high school students’ access to college courses. 

In California, the historical lack of an integrated state data system that connects information from K-12 to higher education has hampered efforts to understand the extent of dual enrollment here. The prevailing narrative has been that California lags other states and the nation in dual enrollment, which is offered in 89% of U.S. high schools, with 11% of all high school students participating nationally.

This brief, released in partnership with Wheelhouse, the Center for Community College Leadership and Research, breaks new ground by matching high school and community college datasets to provide a clearer picture of college course-taking among California public high school students statewide. The analysis of course-taking for the population of students who were seniors in the 2016-17 school year—the most recent cohort for which data from both segments was available—shows that 12.6% of California high school students take college courses, a rate higher than the national average and well above what previous reports suggest for California.

A closer look at the matched dataset, however, reveals significant differences in college course-taking by race and socioeconomic status. Latinx and African American students were underrepresented in community college course-taking compared to their share of overall high school students. Socioeconomically disadvantaged (SED) students were also less likely to dual enroll than their non-SED peers.

The vast majority of California public high schools do not have a formal dual enrollment program, though many have at least one student enrolled in a community college course during high school. Access to an important onramp to the early college experience, and its many demonstrated benefits, is not currently available to all California high school students.

Note: On November 23, 2020, a revised version of this report was posted, and updated analysis was presented in December 2020; see here.

Suggested citationFriedmann, E., Kurlaender, M., Li, A., & Rumberger, R. W. (2020, January). A leg up on college: The scale and distribution of community college participation among California high school students [Policy brief]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/leg-up-on-college