Mix high school with higher ed to aid Minnesota students

Editorial Board, Star Tribune, February 19, 2015
Legislature has a chance to support more dual enrollment.

Several dozen students left Long Prairie Grey Eagle High School with two diplomas between 2010 and 2014 — one that says they graduated from high school and another that granted them an associate of arts degree. Those graduates participated in Minnesota’s dual-enrollment program and got both high school and college credits for their classes.

That’s one example of making smart use of the program, but there should be many more. It represents the kind of educational efficiency that is not only good for students and families, but offers great benefits to all Minnesotans. That’s why a legislative proposal that would expand dual-enrollment opportunities to reach more students is a good idea.

In  Minnesota, 2012-13 data show that about 24,000 students took at least one dual-credit class while attending high school. During the same year, about 7,000 students were taking classes on college campuses under the state’s Postsecondary Educational Options (PSEO) program.

Authored by Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, and Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the new bill has bipartisan backing. The measure would revise current law to allow more teens and high schools to participate and help get the word out about the program to more disadvantaged students and students of color.

Under current rules, there are limitations on ninth- and 10th-graders using dual enrollment. They can participate only if they are needed to fill out a class of older students. If passed, the bill would allow ninth- and 10th-graders to take courses for dual credit if the high school and college or other postsecondary educators believe they can handle it. The bill also would provide additional state funds to help more high schools pay the additional administrative and licensing costs to offer higher-level classes.

The measure also would extend dual-enrollment opportunities to teens who are not currently on track to graduate from high school on time. A student who drops out for a time, for example, then returns might not be eligible to take classes for college credit. But the bill would make that possible for older students who re-enroll.

The package would cost about $20 million over two years.

That’s an investment worth making, because preparing more students for college work saves money for families and taxpayers and increases postsecondary graduation rates. Taking more challenging classes can also open educational doors for not only the highest-performing students, but for kids across the academic spectrum.

In fact, information from the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system shows that students who took one or more PSEO or dual-enrollment classes were indeed closing the achievement gap on graduation rates during the 2012-13 year.

Among African-American students, 88 percent graduated, compared with nearly 60 percent generally. And 92 percent of Hispanic teens who took dual courses graduated, compared with 59 percent of the general Hispanic population.

Experts say that taking college courses creates “academic momentum’’ — especially for lower-income students who may have believed it wasn’t possible for them to attend college. Completing higher-level classes in high school gives them more confidence that they can make it in college.

Dual-credit courses also help students and families save thousands of dollars and reduce the number of students who have to take remedial, non-credit-bearing courses upon entering colleges or universities. Currently, almost 30 percent of Minnesota high school graduates must take remedial courses.

Research shows that dual enrollment is a sound education investment. It helps students get a jump-start on postsecondary learning and leads more of them to successful experiences in college and in the workplace. Students and families can save money, and the economy benefits from a better-prepared workforce.