Opinion: Student voice: ‘Dang, I’m really going to college’

Taking college-level courses at his high school was “fantastic,” according to Khalique Rogers, a student at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul. 

“Our research shows that in just one year, these courses produced more than $13 million in potential savings for students and families,” according to Mary Olson, director of communication and public relations in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Olson reported that in the 2012-13 school year, approximately 79 percent of the district’s seniors “took at least one potential college credit earning course during their high school experience.”

Both are referring to one of the greatest opportunities, or bargains, Minnesota public schools offer: the ability to earn free college credits while taking college-level courses offered in high school. In some high schools, students are earning a two-year Associate of Arts, or A.A., college degree as they graduate from high school.

These courses are part of the overall “dual high school credit” course program available in Minnesota – one of the nation’s broadest set of opportunities. Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, PSEO, Minnesota’s law allowing 10th- through 12th-graders to take free college courses on college and university campuses, is one option.

But it’s equally important for students and families to know that in virtually every one of Minnesota’s high schools, students can earn free college credits in classes at the high school. There are many ways to do this, including Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in the Schools, Project Lead the Way and the CLEP tests.

Here are a few of many examples.

Dawn Sorenson of Spectrum High School in Elk River recently told me in an email that last year one of the their students graduated and earned a two-year A.A. college degree by taking courses on college campuses. This year a student will graduate having earned an A.A. degree “by taking courses offered at the high school, via the ‘CASH’ (College at Spectrum High School) program. … These courses are offered in cooperation with Anoka Ramsey Community College, St. Cloud State University, and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.”

Joseph E. Stangler, director of research and assessment for the Elk River Area School District, wrote via email, “Next year we are offering 18 different Advanced Placement courses, 11 concurrent enrollment courses and 16 courses that meet Articulated College Credit requirements. We are very proud of the depth and breadth we offer in this arena and are consistently looking for additional opportunities to expand our offerings.” Elk River is working with Pine Technical College, St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota to offer some of these college level courses.

A recent report from the national College Board, an organization that produces and scores the Advanced Placement courses, showed that the number of Minnesota students who took an AP exam before leaving high school nearly doubled during the past decade, growing from 9,256 in 2003 to 17,482 in 2013. The number of students who posted passing scores on these exams also doubled, from 5,882 in 2003, to 11,497 in 2013. The complete report is at http://bit.ly/1jrdUH6.

Minnesota Department of Education estimates, “With an average rate of $348.93 per credit hour, those passing scores helped save Minnesota students and their families nearly $44 million.”

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner, said it’s exciting to see students taking more rigorous courses and posting higher scores all while earning college credit that will save them money down the line.

Karen Hynick, system director of P-20 and College Readiness for the Minnesota State College and Universities told me: “Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are deeply committed to advancing their partnership efforts with their local school districts to enable college- and program-ready students access to a variety of early college credit opportunities. Be it PSEO, concurrent enrollment or competency-based programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, these options provide students with the opportunity to accelerate their learning and save time and money on their quest for postsecondary degrees.”

Colleges and universities vary in their acceptance policies of these dual credit courses. Students who want their credit to “count” toward a college degree should check with higher education institutions that the student is considering to see what their policies are.

Beyond the numbers and reports, it’s deeply gratifying to hear students – especially students who may be the first in their family – describe what it’s meant to take these courses. We have several videos on our website, http://bit.ly/1l022cy, in which students discuss this.

Rogers said that the courses he took at his high school gave him “a chance to see real college work without the inconvenience of traveling to a college campuses.” And Antonia, a student at AGAPE, a St. Paul district high school, described these courses as “the best of both worlds. … Dang, I’m really going to college.” — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected])