Free college courses during high school? Yes, but some Minnesota schools still don’t tell students

Apr 20, 2016 by

By Erin Hinrichs –

State legislators have been discussing many pressing education issues this session — everything from suspension policies and early childhood education to teacher recruitment and student support services.

The proposed solutions place varying degrees of emphasis on the need for things like increased state funding, more thorough reporting, holistic supports for families and policy changes.

Whatever initiatives end up moving forward, it’s likely they’ll get bogged down a bit on the implementation end as education leaders reconfigure their budgets, build teacher and community buy-in, and adopt new policies.

Given the sense of urgency that underpins so many education issues, it’s tempting to ask: Aren’t there some quick fixes we can knock out right now?

The short answer: Yes, but that still doesn’t mean schools will comply.

As it turns out, a 2014 state mandate requiring districts and charters to simply provide “up to date” information about Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) on their website still hasn’t been fully implemented, even after the state Department of Education provided a text template that could be copied and pasted.

According to a new report released by the St. Paul-based Center for School Change (CSC), huge strides toward compliance have been made over the past seven months. However, the fact that it took some public scolding to get to this point, combined with a number of persistent PSEO information shortcomings highlighted by the center, suggests this mandate will require continued monitoring.

Malik Bush

Malik Bush

“It’s a complicated story because there are still concerns,” Malik Bush, co-director of CSC, said. “If you want the system to work it’s not enough to pass laws. You have to follow up to see if the laws are being implemented and build a coalition.”

Pioneered in Minnesota

In 1985, Minnesota legislators adopted the PSEO Act, taking the lead as the first state to allow high school juniors and seniors the ability to take all or part of their coursework at participating two- and four-year public and private college and universities for free. Inclusion has since expanded to include sophomores who meet certain requirements, as well.

Through this dual enrollment option, high school students can simultaneously earn high school and college credits. State funding follows participating high school students, offsetting all tuition, lab, book, and other required expenses, whether they choose to take courses online or on campus.

The main thing that sets PSEO apart from other dual-enrollment programs — Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in the Schools, and Project Lead the Way — is the on-campus learning component. This requires some additional schedule coordination, often with the help of a high school counselor. But students can apply for funding to cover transportation expenses as well, and stand to benefit from the added experience of interacting with professors, learning alongside other college students and navigating a campus.

At the same time, the flow of state-allocated student funding out of high schools makes it a bit more controversial than its counterparts. Schools also cover additional expenses to host other dual-credit programs on site, but these are less costly than funding a PSEO student.

While schools are legally obligated to support students who wished to enroll in PSEO courses, they long had access to a loophole in the system: If students didn’t know the option existed, or what it actually entailed, they’d be less inclined to take PSEO courses.

This concern over the information gap has been one of the Center for School Change’s driving motivators in promoting PSEO and other dual-enrollment options. Lawmakers addressed this in 2014 by amending the PSEO law to require district and charter schools provide “up to date” information about the program on their website, along with additional informational materials for families.

That same year, lawmakers lifted the gag rule banning colleges and universities from providing certain information about PSEO directly to students and families, including one of the key selling points: It’s free for students.

The appeal of dual-enrollment

Research shows that students who participate in PSEO or other dual-enrollment options are more likely to graduate from high school, to start and finish a higher ed degree, and to avoid having to invest in non-credit-bearing remedial courses upon entering college or university.

For those who do pursue a higher ed degree, the amount of debt they take on can be drastically reduced depending on how many dual-enrollment credits they acquire in high school.

According to the state Department of Education, in the 2013-14 school year, Minnesota students earned 154,650 college credits through PSEO. Using the University of Minnesota’s average credit cost of $463 for that academic year to come up with a ballpark figure, CSC reports Minnesota students saved more than $71.7 million.

For students, especially those who come from low-income families, capitalizing on the cost-savings potential of PSEO and other dual-enrollment programs can be life altering.

Aaliyah Hodge

Aaliyah Hodge

For Aaliyah Hodge, 21, graduating from St. Louis Park High School with 58 college credits allowed her to expedite her undergraduate experience at the University of Minnesota, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in Asian languages and literature by age 19.

Her mom first heard about PSEO from a colleague and encouraged her to apply. So she inquired at her school and worked out a half day of on-campus PSEO for her junior year and a full day her senior year. But the process wasn’t necessarily very user-friendly.

“My counselor gave us one little piece of paper with information about PSEO,” she said, adding they told her mom not to worry about figuring out PSEO because she could get the same education through dual-enrollment options offered at the high school.

Hodge persisted, despite the lack of information provided up front, including information about the transportation she could have applied for to cover the cost of taking the bus to the University of Minnesota campus for class.

This May, she’ll finish a master’s degree in public policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Given her own experience advocating for her right to utilize PSEO, she says she’s especially interested in education policy.

“There’s a lot of confusion about [PSEO], not enough information,” she said. “It’s really troubling for something that’s been around for so long.”

‘Academic momentum’

While Hodge was able to figure things out on her own, often students who stand to benefit most from PSEO — those who come from low-income families, who are low performing, or who are the first in their family to pursue college — are the ones who are least likely to be encouraged to apply. In this regard, the push to ensure all students and families have equal access to information about PSEO is also an equity issue.

“Everyone assumes that the kids who are capable of doing dual-enrollment are being told, but the issues is they are not,” Joe Nathan, senior fellow with CSC said.

This is concerning because these courses are also linked to closing the graduation gap between students of color and their white peers in Minnesota.

Source: Free college courses during high school? Yes, but some Minnesota schools still don’t tell students | MinnPost

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