“Can I afford college?”

It’s a question that’s front and center on the mind of nearly every high school student. And let’s face it, with rising tuition costs and the ever-growing student debt crisis, it’s a legitimate concern for many young people across the country.

It’s no secret that college affordability remains a leading barrier to college access and success. There’s one segment of our student population that’s at an even greater disadvantage: those who are low-income, BIPOC and whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree. Studies have shown that students from these demographic groups are the least likely to attend or complete college.

Unfortunately, the hardships faced by these students have only been exacerbated by the disproportionate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three years ago, Foothill College piloted Early College Promise, an exciting program aimed specifically at helping our underrepresented students. Built on the national College Promise movement, we offered free enrollment for low-income, minority, first-generation and other underrepresented youth in their final years of high school and waived their course expenses.

I am pleased to say that in the first two years since Early College Promise has been operational, we’ve enrolled more than 2,500 high school students from Los Altos, Alta Vista, Mountain View and Palo Alto highs in the program. That would not have been possible without seed funding from Santa Clara County and the leadership of Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has championed this effort.

With their support, we’ve been able to significantly expand dual enrollment opportunities for high school students in the county to access college-level courses. As a result, enrollment figures and graduation rates remain robust among our underrepresented student community.

Dual enrollment enables students to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. Most of the courses are transferable to four-year colleges and universities. At Foothill, we are seeing high success rates for our students of color – not to mention decreased college costs.

The marvelous thing about dual enrollment is that it exposes students to the rigors and expectations of college coursework early on. This preview reduces the risk of dropping out because students enter their college career knowing what to expect. And upon entering college, students who were previously dual-enrolled can complete their degrees faster because they have already earned college credits.

Our young people have gotten to benefit from college and have gained the opportunity to broaden their job skills. We look forward to continued support from our county leaders so that we can continue making the American dream real for a segment of our student population that so often gets left behind.

Thuy Thi Nguyen is president of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.