Louisiana’s Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed addresses Southeastern Louisiana University graduates at the commencement ceremony on Saturday.

Although the number of public high school students taking college courses is up 60 percent, barely 1 in 5 of those enrolled are black students.

Louisiana education leaders said uneven access, the lack of any statewide plan and other hurdles are hindering the effort to make the dual enrollment program a bigger part of the education landscape.

"We have challenges remaining," said Larry Tremblay, deputy commissioner for planning, research and academic affairs for the state Board of Regents, which oversees higher education.

Dual enrollment offers high school students a chance to earn both school and college credit.

The case for pursuing the credits is overwhelming, Tremblay said.

Those who take part enroll in college at higher rates, graduate sooner and save money. The most popular courses are math, English and history, in that order.

A total of 31,517 students were enrolled for the 2017-18 school year, the latest available. Ten years ago, the total was 19,716.

But only 23 percent of high school students are taking college courses, according to state figures.

The fact that just 21 percent of the total are black students — they make up 44 percent of the high school population — has sparked attention and concerns.

How do we improve it, asked Marty Chabert, incoming chairman of the Board of Regents, during a joint meeting last week of the Regents and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"It illuminates the equity gaps that we see," Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed said in an interview.

"For a number of students, it is exposure and an opportunity to go from 'I am not sure I am college material" to a self-talk that 'I can do it,' ” she said.

State Superintendent of Education John White said the state should ensure tuition fees are not blocking enrollments. "We truly need to be doing more to get kids of all backgrounds ready for the courses," White said, also in an interview.

Regional, technical and community colleges account for 81 percent of dual enrollment.

The University of Louisiana system, which includes Southeastern Louisiana University, the University of New Orleans and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, comprise 43 percent of the total, or 13,360 students.

Southeastern alone handles 13 percent of dual enrollment students statewide and Louisiana Tech another 10 percent.

By comparison, LSU accounts for 7 percent of the total and the LSU system represents 14 percent of dual enrollments statewide.

Southern University in Baton Rouge makes up 1 percent of the total, and the Southern University system 5 percent.

Neither LSU nor Southern officials responded to a request for comment.

The 13 schools that make up the Louisiana Community and Technical College System handle 38 percent of those taking college courses, or 12,062 students.

Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system, said regional colleges have formed robust relationships with local school systems. "That is vitally important to having an effective dual enrollment program," Henderson said. 

Dual enrollment challenges have been a recurring topic in recent years.

In 2016, the Legislature passed a resolution seeking answers on why more students are not taking part, especially because barely half of high school seniors carry a full course load.

Last year, Regents grappled with issues aimed at ensuring existing classes include enough rigor and are taught by qualified instructors.

By national standards, Louisiana was late to the game.

Tremblay said dual enrollment courses used to be aimed at gifted students.

In a related area, the state has also long ranked at or near the bottom in the U.S. in the number of high school students who earn college credit through Advanced Placement.

The lack of any statewide framework, like those in North Carolina and Ohio, is one of the stumbling blocks, officials said.

"Other states have figured out how to do it very well," said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, who has been involved in efforts to raise the profile of the classes.

The lack of any overarching state plan means dual enrollment varies from district to district.

Some students pay nothing for the classes. Others are charged up to $800 per course. Students in rural areas complain about lack of access to classes freely available in cities.

"It is all a locally brokered thing," White said. "We really need to get to a point where there is a statewide, minimum level of access for qualified students."

Said Reed, "When opportunity is defined by geography, then we know we have to do something different."

Robert Levy, outgoing chairman of the Regents, made the same point.

"We don't have a state framework," said Levy, who lives in Dubach.

"From day one we have said, 'Where is the money?' ” he added. "We should demand from our legislators that great progress be made on this."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.