The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

The growing number of local students in the pursuit of collecting college credits while still enrolled in high school is compelling community college officials to expand the district’s middle college program.

The San Mateo County Community College District’s program, which invites students to take college courses on district campuses while still enrolled in high school, has become immensely popular, said Executive Vice Chancellor Kathy Blackwood.

Middle college appeals to students who may not fit into a conventional comprehensive high school community, said Blackwood, or those who may need additional challenges and a head start on to the next steps of their educational path.

“The takeaway is that for the students that middle college is right for, it really works well,” Blackwood said. “We feel it is an integral part of the programs we have, but also that the high schools need to be offering.”

All community college district campuses host middle college programs, said Blackwood, which allow high school students to complete their graduation requirements while also working toward finishing college.

To accommodate the increase in demand, Blackwood said Skyline College in San Bruno will double the amount of students the program serves in the coming year, while Cañada College in Redwood City and College of San Mateo have programs enrolling roughly 250 students annually.

The increase in dual enrollment programs is facilitated by Assembly Bill 288, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, and encourages collaboration between community college districts and local feeder districts.

In middle college, students must take some classes adhering to their high school curriculum, and can round out their schedule with a few college courses as well. Under the law, students can take as many as 15 community college units at no charge. Counseling is a major component of the program as well, as students are encouraged to take internships and gather work experience.

Blackwood said the new law in tandem with the increased interest in middle college works to jump-start the academic career of students, as studies show those who earn college credit early are likelier to succeed in high school and transition into higher education.

Jim Lianides, superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District, said in an email he believes the middle college program has been asset for students in his district.

“It is a very popular program for our students,” he said, noting 100 students are enrolled and a waitlist has formed to participate.

He noted the program offers additional benefits, such as allowing students exposure to higher education, while still maintaining their status as high schoolers, which allows them to participate on sports teams and other extracurricular activities.

Students can gain a substantial advantage in their pursuit of a degree by participating in the program, said Lianides.

“Most middle college students graduate from high school with one year of college credit and there is always one or two that also graduate having completed all requirements for an [associate’s] degree as well,” he said.

The middle college program is not the only type of unconventional educational program at local community college campuses, said Blackwood, noting the district launching an initiative at Skyline College offering baccalaureate degrees in respiratory care.

The pilot program is one of only 15 in the state in which community college students can graduate with a four-year degree in specific trades. Blackwood said ultimately she expects the offering to draw more students to enroll in the district.

For now though, Blackwood said the district’s enrollment has essentially held steady with the ebbs and flows of previous years and mirrors the health of the economy.

Traditionally, when the local job market is thriving, district students take fewer units, said Blackwood, and classrooms fill up when work is harder to find.

“Students are taking fewer courses because they are working more,” said Blackwood. “When unemployment goes down, so does enrollment.”

District officials backfill the loss of revenue when enrollment dips by recruiting more international students, said Blackwood.

The result is a more diverse campus, filled with working community college students, those from overseas and others in middle college, which Blackwood said she believed is a model example of creative and innovative offerings that meets the demands of students.

“It’s a great program,” she said.