Valentine Wulf was bored by her high school English class, uninterested in “jumping through hoops” to prepare for writing an essay. That’s why the 16-year-old prefers taking an English course at North Seattle College — it allows her to just start writing.
“The pace moves a lot faster … there’s less time that is spent just sitting in a classroom doing things to get ready to do the assignment,” said Wulf, who attends The Center School in Seattle.
But this year fewer students are thinking like Wulf, who is enrolled in Running Start, the state program that allows students to earn college credits while working toward their high school diploma.
Enrollment has plummeted by about 14%, after years of steady increases.
A variety of factors are fueling the drop, including a desire by many to have a normal high school experience instead of hashing out logistics to take college classes that have continued mostly online. Some students say after two years of disrupted pandemic learning, they don’t feel ready for college yet.
The drop wasn’t unexpected. Some schools began seeing a slightly smaller number of students enrolling for fall quarter in 2020 after years of gradual but consistent increases, and overall college enrollment is down. But fall 2021’s Running Start decline is much more drastic and widespread than last school year.
Clark College in Vancouver is one of the 33 community colleges in Washington to see a drop in Running Start students in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Enrollment data on the board's website indicates a headcount of Running Start students dropped to 1,883 students in the current school year from 2,242 in 2020-21 — a decline of about 16 percent.
That has many higher education experts worried. They’re working to underscore the program’s benefits: college credits earned tuition-free in high school can save students thousands of dollars down the road, especially for those who earn their associate degrees.
Still, signing up for Running Start can be daunting. Students have to talk with a high school counselor and coordinate with the college they plan to attend, register for classes and make sure course fees and their textbooks — costs the state doesn’t cover through the program — are paid for. They also have to get to campus on their own, and navigate class schedules that don’t always align.
“It’s a confusing process, and I think schools could make it clearer how to do it,” Wulf said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re all on the same page sometimes.”
The slowed enrollment isn’t hitting colleges evenly, although all but one of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges saw numbers go down this year. At Everett Community College, the number of students in the program last fall dropped by just under 9%, while others, like Green River College, saw its Running Start student population shrink by nearly 28% compared with the year before.
College leaders are eager for those numbers to pick up.
“We know that the high school counselors … it’s been absolutely craziness the last few years for them just trying to get students’ basic needs met, get them graduated.” said Jamie Traugott, director of dual credit and K12 alignment for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “I think a worry is: Will the gaps that we already have — our achievement gaps — continue to get bigger?”
Traugott said college leaders are discussing how to partner better with high schools, and state agencies are working on curating more opportunities for staff at those schools to share resources and best practices.
Edmonds College President Amit Singh says the school is focused on ways to better convey the benefits to families as well. Staff are going to local libraries, working with nonprofits and hosting information sessions targeted specifically at parents. The college just moved to a 50-50 mix of in-person and online classes this quarter and is amping up its in-person outreach.
Singh is concerned that students who have chosen not to participate are also missing out on the introductory experience to higher education — it’s a great way to test the waters, he said, especially for underserved students who may never have had a family member go to college.
“To have the opportunity to take a class or so at Running Start while in high school, experience the college, and to feel ‘oh this is possible, I can do it’ — that is the biggest benefit,” he said.
But there are a lot of factors influencing students’ education decisions even if they — and their families — are familiar with the program and its perks.
A small survey conducted by Bellevue College found that some students are more hesitant to take on higher-level courses after years of disruptions to their learning. Others said they want to go to high school with their friends and embrace traditions lost after multiple years of constant uncertainty.
Frida Santos Enriquez, another Running Start student at North Seattle, has continued with the program because she’s determined to earn as much college credit as she can before graduating from high school. But she’s often felt disconnected from her friends and the schools themselves. She goes to a club at her high school, Ballard High, because it’s one of the few ways she can socialize — nearly all of her college classes have been online.
“Even like when people went back, I was still at home, like still living the effect of the pandemic,” she said. “It gave me a new sense of social anxiety.”
That point isn’t lost on leadership.
Chris Reykdal, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, says there are two major things that he thinks need to happen for enrollment to pick back up.
“Get in person again, and get rid of these out-of-pocket fees for families,” he said.
Reykdal is also eager for some long-term system changes — like more support for high schoolers who want to take advanced career technical education classes.
Overall, Reykdal, Traugott and Singh are optimistic numbers will rebound given time, additional outreach and more in-person classes and resources. With fall enrollment opening up soon, plenty of questions remain about how quickly that could happen. A slow return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels — for Running Start, and more broadly — could have lasting effects on how schools operate, because fewer students means less funding for the community colleges.
“So there are a lot of hard questions in front of us, and we have to find solutions … we don’t have all the answers yet,” Singh said.
And ultimately, Running Start isn’t for everyone. North Seattle student Wulf says there are many reasons she prefers the faster pace of her college English and humanities classes, but she still takes math at high school because that’s just what she needs.
“There’s no shame in not doing Running Start,” Wulf said. “People just learn very differently.”
Despite the unique challenges presented by the pandemic, students like Wulf and Santos Enriquez say they’ve gained a lot through the program, in addition to their credits. After they graduate from high school, they’re looking forward to college — especially in person.
Santos Enriquez plans to go to the University of Washington and pursue a degree in business. But she also wants to join multicultural clubs, and explore classes she might not have considered in the past.
“I’ve always known that my education and higher education is something I’ve always wanted to strive for,” Santos Enriquez said. “But something I didn’t even know was that my social level and my social life is as important and can impact — and very much does impact — my academic career as well.”