Reimagining the PhD

How High School Students are Changing Washington State Community Colleges

Jessica Bachman smiling at the camera in a black shirt and short hair with blurred background



"Now that high school students make up almost a quarter of associate degrees granted throughout the Washington state community college system, it is time for colleges to think through how this major demographic shift in enrollment might impact their mission and core values."

Washington State promises high school students who chose to enroll in community colleges as part of its popular Running Start program a “true college experience.” According to the program’s fact sheet, issued by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, “Running Start students have the same responsibilities as every other college student: they enroll, attend class, do homework, take tests, and are graded with the same expectations as their classmates.”

What the fact sheet does not mention, however, is that many Running Start students will be hard-pressed to find “other college students” in their community college courses. As the program continues to experience double-digit growth, it has become increasingly common for high schoolers to form the vast majority of enrollment in certain courses and subject areas, which means that many Running Start students only interact with each other in the classroom.

“We always hear that our community college students are older, and I’m looking around thinking, I’m not sure what you mean,” says Cristóbal Borges, a History professor at North Seattle College. For the past several years, Running Start students have made up between 85 and 90 percent of the enrollment in Dr. Borges’s U.S. History surveys. This fall they made up 95 percent of his enrollment. The remaining 2-3 spots in his courses were taken by students who had just recently graduated high school and enrolled in community college as part of the Seattle Promise initiative.

Against the backdrop of soaring college tuition rates and real wage stagnation, the Running Start program has been credited with helping Washington State high school students and their families make college more affordable. The program, established in 1990, provides high school students tuition-free enrollment at 34 community and technical colleges and select universities, where they can concurrently earn college and high-school credits. According to public data produced by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, nearly 30,000 high school students are now enrolled in Washington state community colleges, —the equivalent of 16 percent of the community college system’s total student population. The number of high school students participating in the Running Start program has nearly doubled since 2009-2010, when 16,000 high school students or around 6 percent of the total community college population enrolled. At certain state community colleges, Running Start students form an even greater percentage of the student population. For example, at Cascadia College in Bothell, Clark College in Vancouver, and Green River College in Auburn, high school students comprise over 20 percent of total enrollments.

Although Running Start students are still a numeric minority, they tend to be overrepresented in courses that meet their high school subject and credit requirements. At North Seattle College, for example, it is common for Running Start students to constitute close to 90 percent of the enrollment in courses such as English 101, U.S. History surveys, and American government, particularly when these courses are offered during daytime hours.

“For me, it really does change the classroom dynamic, and it changes the experience for them when it’s essentially a high-school class socially,” says Laura McCracken, a faculty member in Seattle North’s English Department. McCracken suggests that caps on the number of Running Start students who can be enrolled in one course section might help create a more balanced and diverse classroom. “I don’t feel like it is giving them the full college experience, and I also often feel bad for older students. There are a lot of older students that come to community colleges who are feeling kind of vulnerable about being here. It takes a lot for them to come back to school, and then they’re in a class with a 16-year-old who is maybe academically prepared to be in the class but perhaps doesn’t have the same level of maturity.”

Jim Jewell, also a member of Seattle North’s English Department, agrees that issues related to the maturity level of Running Start students can be frustrating for college instructors, but also points out that the challenge is not insurmountable. “What I tend to focus on for those Running Start-heavy classes is really making the college-level expectations clear from the start and never wavering,” he says. “When we have a class that is fully Running Start, they can still have a ‘real’ college experience, but it requires us to balance the reality that they are high school students while setting clear and high expectations.”

The shift in course demographics brought about by rising popularity of the Running Start program has also prompted some faculty members at Seattle North to offer more support and “hand-holding” than they did when their courses enrolled a greater proportion of older students. “I haven’t changed my expectations, necessarily, but I have changed how I support students to meet those expectations,” said Cathryn Cabral. But Cabral sees the fact that she sends students more check-in and reminder emails in a positive light. “I think … being more supportive of where students are at when they get here is probably helpful to all students, so I don’t think of it as a regression of any kind.”

Despite the challenges associated with opening up community college classrooms to more high school students than ever before, faculty still see the program in a positive light.  “I love young activist energy in the classroom, and I’m getting more and more of that every year,” says Jim Jewell, who joined Seattle Colleges in 2012. Erik Jaccard teaches mostly evening and hybrid online classes at North with fewer Running Start students, but he also sees how college classrooms can benefit from Running Start.  “It’s really cool to see the high school students acclimate into that culture of people who have returned to college usually with a much more focused and purposeful intent and to have some of those (college) behaviors modeled for them,” he says. “And in my experience, they do really find over the course of the quarter that they have that in them as well.”

Community and Technical College leaders, administrators, and trustees certainly understand the importance of Running Start from a financial perspective. A recent research report noted that even as the community college system at large experienced a 14 percent drop in full-time enrollment during the 2020-2021 academic year, adversely affected by the pandemic, high-school student enrollment through the Running Start program rose by 4 percent. And amid a continued concern over the stark drop-off in international enrollment over the past five years, administrators are likely to continue to nurture the program’s expansion and its pipeline of guaranteed tuition dollars.

But it is important to recognize that a lower average college entry age also carries serious implications for teaching and learning. Developing courses, assignments, and activities might look different for instructors when the majority of their students are adolescents and not adults. And since adolescents require forms of support to manage their learning that do not always line up with the needs of adult learners, college administrators might need to invest in additional training and development for faculty who have little experience or even desire to teach high school-age learners. As one instructor quipped during my interview with Seattle North faculty members, “There is a reason why I became a college professor and not a high school teacher.” Now that high school students make up almost a quarter of associate degrees granted throughout the Washington state community college system, it is time for colleges to think through how this major demographic shift in enrollment might impact their mission and core values.

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