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

Solutions in education don’t get much easier than this: copy/paste info to the school’s website. So why’s it still a work in progress?

The PSEO Act allows high school juniors, seniors and some sophomores the ability to take all or part of their coursework at participating two- and four-year public and private college and universities, like St. Catherine University, above, for free.

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.

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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.

MDE Statewide 4-year Graduation Rates (Report Year: 2012-2013)
Source: MDE Report Card and NCLB Grad Rate Carl Perkins Core Indicator
MDE Statewide 4-year Graduation Rates for all students, those who take Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes, and those who take PSEO or other Concurrent Enrollment Courses (Report Year: 2012-2013)

According to 2012-13 data collected by the Minnesota Department of Education, the graduation rate for African-American students was 57.8 percent and the graduation gap was 27.5 percent. For those who took at least one PSEO or College in the Schools course, their graduation rate rose to 88.2 percent, closing the gap to under 10 percent. The numbers were even more impressive for American Indian students.

“If you ask yourself, ‘Why is that?’ I’m sure they learned a lot in that course, but it really indicates a change in mindset to ‘I can do this. I have something that’s possible, that I can work toward.’ That’s what the research calls ‘academic momentum,’” Bush said.  

Lagging implementation

Following up on the information mandate passed in 2014, CSC conducted a compliance investigation that highlighted just how little had actually changed across the state by August 2015.  

The center identified a random sampling of one charter or district school in each of the state’s 87 counties and studied their websites to assess the quality of PSEO information being provided.

As stated in its August 2015 report: 80 percent of schools did not explicitly explain that tuition, books and required lab fees are covered for PSEO students; 85 percent did not provide up-to-date information about the 10th grade option; 91 percent did not provide the accurate date for a student to notify their intent to enroll in PSEO; and 99 percent did not mention PSEO courses can be taken online, or that transportation assistance is available to students from low-income families.

Even the state Department of Education, at this point, had not updated its website to include recent revisions to PSEO law.

Following the release of this report and the public discourse that ensued, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius emailed a notice to all district superintendents and charter public school directors on Aug. 13 that included a PSEO text template that could be copied and pasted to their websites.

The commissioner sent out a follow-up email on Feb. 4, 2016, reminding schools that PSEO information on their websites must be updated by March 1 of each year. A number of other education leaders representing state associations for school administrators, rural education and charters also contacted school across the state encouraging them to comply.

“I think this is a sign of collaboration and cooperation that’s encouraging,” Bush said.

A second report released by CSC this past March captured the success of their collective efforts. Upon re-examining the same 87 websites in Jan. 2016, CSC found that the vast majority — 90 percent — of schools were providing up-to-date PSEO information online.

Room for improvement

The fact that 10 percent of schools in the sample group have continued to disregard this simple mandate, however, is keeping CSC on alert. The center also flagged a number of related issues that warrant attention, including inconsistencies in the acceptance of PSEO credits by Minnesota colleges and universities, in the types of and accuracy of off-line PSEO information materials being offered to families, and in how high schools weight PSEO courses toward class rank. 

Taking the issue of access to information a step further, the center suggests that simply posting information about PSEO on a school website it not enough. Schools should also ensure that it’s easy to find.

John Miller
John Miller

“It was difficult, sometimes extremely difficult, to find information about PSEO on the majority of the 87 websites we reviewed,” wrote the authors of the latests CSC report. “This was especially true on many of the 55 percent of websites that either did not have a search function, or had a search function that did not bring the user to information about PSEO.”

It may sound nitpicky, but consider, once again, what’s at stake when schools — whether intentionally, or unintentionally — limit students’ access to this information.

“A lot of the kids that don’t know about these options are underserved kids, students of color, low-income students who benefit disproportionately when they do take these courses,” John Miller, co-director of CSC, said. “It would be a service to the whole state of Minnesota and all its citizens if they were given better access to these educational opportunities.”