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University of California to Offer Free College Classes Online to Low-Income High School Students

The University of California System will launch a new initiative to offer online undergraduate courses for free to low-income high school students nationwide starting early in 2024. In collaboration with the National Education Equity Lab (NEEL), UC will start by offering two of its existing courses in high schools but plans to add more classes in the coming months. Students will earn both high school and transferable UC college credits for each class.

The initiative sets forth an objective of “helping more students from first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented communities prepare for college through rigorous curriculum and strong academic supports,” according to a September 2023 memorandum prepared for UC’s Board of Regents by the Office of the President. NEEL’s program exclusively targets students enrolled in schools that qualify for special federal funding under Title I of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 because of these districts’ large proportions of low-income families. Some of these Title I districts are among the poorest in the United States.

By partnering with the Equity Lab, UC joins twelve other universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Wesleyan, Howard, and the University of Pennsylvania. UC is the second California university to join NEEL, following Stanford, and the second public college to join after Arizona State, but it’s the first public research university system to collaborate with the Equity Lab. Currently, the Lab offers college courses to more than 15,000 students in 300 Title I high schools across 29 states.

Specifically, which two existing classes UC will offer first have not yet been selected. NEEL originally launched in 2019 with a literature course from Harvard and now offers a wide variety of courses. Classes include a bioengineering course from Stanford, a sociology principles course from Arizona State and a quantitative methods class named “Big Data for Big Policy Problems” from Cornell.

There’s no charge to the students for these courses. However, high schools must pay a nominal administrative fee to the Equity Lab of $250 per student. NEEL points out that a typical three-credit-hour, 15-week semester class can cost over $4,500 at one of its private university partners, and tuition for its courses is mostly underwritten by a broad range of private foundations and philanthropies.

Consistent with the Equity Lab’s “college-in-high-school” model, UC’s faculty will develop and organize the courses with the support of teaching fellows drawn from undergraduate and graduate students and alumni. UC plans for asynchronous, recorded faculty lectures supplemented with live Zoom discussion sections led by the teaching assistants each week.

Just as with any undergraduate class, the TAs will also provide academic support by answering questions during office hours and grading student work. Equity Lab students also will have additional support available from their high school teachers, working collaboratively as co-facilitators with the TAs.

What is a Dual Enrollment Course?

UC’s new courses belong to a widespread and increasingly common genre known as dual enrollment. These DE classes are known by various names that include “dual credit,” “early college,” “joint enrollment,” or “concurrent enrollment.”

Dual enrollment courses differ from older approaches to earning college credit during high school, like the College Board’s 68-year-old Advanced Placement Program—the same program made famous by the true story of the East Los Angeles calculus scholars in the inspiring 1988 film Stand and Deliver. AP classes are high school courses taught by high-school teachers that cover lower-division college-level subject material; although their award policies vary, most colleges grant credit towards graduation for completing AP classes with sufficient passing scores.

However, unlike AP classes, dual enrollment courses are college courses that college faculty teach, and they require a partnership between a postsecondary institution that awards the higher education credit in collaboration with a secondary school. Students typically take these courses at their high schools; however, they can also take them at other high schools nearby, on a college’s campus, or online.

Growth in DE Course Enrollments

Less than 350,000 American students had enrolled in dual enrollment programs in 1999. However, about 82 percent of public high schools offer DE courses these days, and they enroll more than 1.5 million high school students yearly.

The vast majority of these DE courses —about 70 percent—are offered through community college partnerships with high schools. Across the nation in 2021, more than a million children under age 18 studied in community colleges—an age bracket serving as a proxy identifying dual enrollment students.

Even as community college enrollment has declined during the last decade in almost every state—and plummeted recently in some states like California—DE enrollments have dramatically surged. As of late 2023, 20 percent of community college students across the United States are actually high school children enrolled in a dual enrollment program.

How UC’s Courses Differ From Typical DE Classes

UC officials are quick to differentiate their new Equity Lab courses from typical dual enrollment programs taught by community colleges. Even though community colleges play a crucial role in higher education, it’s no secret that two-year colleges tend to offer courses that cover fewer topics, are less intellectually challenging, and grade much easier than their equivalents at major research universities.

Accordingly, it’s also not a surprise that UC’s memo mentions the word “rigorous” and its variations four times in reference to the Equity Lab’s courses. Dr. Yvette Gullatt, UC’s vice provost and vice president for graduate and undergraduate affairs, told EdSource that NEEL’s offerings will be classes and subjects that students “can’t get in high school or community college.” She says UC’s courses:

. . .resemble our university deep dive courses. These are the things our faculty do so very well. This is their research in the classroom. This is their teaching. So this goes beyond our traditional A through G and our general ed and into those spaces where our faculty’s teaching and research come together.

UC’s new program will also reach children from very different backgrounds than typical DE programs. Dr. Katherine Newman, UC’s provost and executive vice president of academic affairs, also pointed out to EdSource that compared with the low-income students targeted by UC’s program, the students who usually enroll in dual enrollment classes “tend to be a much more middle class constituency.”

That’s quite an understatement, according to a new Columbia University report released only weeks following UC’s announcement. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia’s Teachers College says that some observers label dual enrollment partnerships between colleges and high schools as “programs of privilege” because students from more privileged backgrounds are significantly overrepresented among those taking DE classes. Moreover, the report says that only about 20 percent of school districts nationwide provide their students with equitable access to dual enrollment programs.

For example, the CCRC analyzed the proportions of students in dual enrollment coursework during the 2017-2018 academic year and reported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Columbia’s analysis revealed that 63.1 percent of all the DE students were white, even though they comprised only 50.1 percent of all high school students. That meant the white students were overrepresented by a factor of 1.25 times the equal representation baseline across the nation.

However, only 8.9 percent of all the DE students were Black, even though they made up 14.9 percent of all high school students. That means that the Black students were underrepresented by a factor of about 0.6 times the baseline.

Furthermore, white students made up the only group out of the nine categories analyzed for this study that was overrepresented. Asian students were represented equally, and all other groups were underrepresented. The most underrepresented group was disabled students, who were underrepresented by a factor of about 0.31 times the baseline.

“Compared to their high school enrollments nationally, Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities (served under IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and English language learners (ELL) were severely underrepresented in dual enrollment,” says CCRC senior researcher John Fink. He offered those remarks in a 2021 blog post accompanying an expanded version of this analysis.

CCRC’s report also suggests that two groups often fail to understand how taking dual enrollment courses will benefit them. These groups include “first generation” students without college graduate parents who will be the first in their families to attend college, along with students who lack proper guidance from their families or high schools. As a result, most students in these two groups don’t sign up for DE courses, even though such classes would provide them several compelling advantages.

Advantages for Dual Enrollment Students

Dual enrollment programs have been shown to have academic and financial benefits. For example, a 2019 Rand Corporation study of North Carolina’s statewide Career & College Promise Dual Enrollment Program found that its students were 9 percent more likely to enroll in college. Incredibly, those students also earned six times more college credits while still in high school compared with students outside the program.

Moreover, an extensive 2017 review of 35 studies by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) found several statistically significant positive effects on DE students. The benefits included higher rates of three accomplishments: college degree attainment, college enrollment and access, and accumulation of college credits towards graduation.

Furthermore, like the Advanced Placement Program, dual enrollment programs can save substantial amounts of time and money for children and their families. Rather than paying tuition and fees for courses later on during college, children in high school can enroll in college courses for no charge or at reduced prices, and those classes often include textbooks, materials, and transportation.

According to another nationwide IES study issued in December 2020, 78 percent of all public school dual enrollment programs during the 2017-2018 academic year received partial or full funding support from the high school, district, or state.

Inspiration Money Can’t Buy

Besides all these benefits, there’s something else that the Equity Lab claims its students receive from its program that they can’t obtain from the other more typical dual enrollment options. And it’s not something that money can ever buy.

As this 2021 New York Times front-page story and this inspiring 2022 YouTube presentation by NEEL founder Leslie Cornfeld point out, the Equity Lab claims that many students enrolled in its courses experience a transformative, life-changing mindset shift. NEEL says that epiphany happens as soon as they experience for themselves that going to school in one of the poorest public school districts in America cannot stop them from winning good grades from one of the finest universities in the world.

For example, according to Cornfeld:

One young woman, Di’Zhon Chase, who’s from the Navajo Nation in Gallup, New Mexico, took a Harvard humanities course during our pilot. Her brother then said to her when she got an A in that class, “You’ve got to reach higher.”

So she applied to Columbia University, got a full scholarship, is a second year student there now, and she’s doing incredibly well.

“These courses are focused on establishing that opportunity to show people that they can succeed in college,” said Dr. Rolin Moe, UC Online’s executive director, in remarks to EdSource. “A student who gets to say, ‘I took a course from UC Berkeley,’ or ‘I took a course from UC Santa Cruz,’ what that means for somebody— internally and intrinsically—could be all the difference.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.