High school students around the state could soon lose access to college-level classes in their schools due to a new policy that requires teachers to have a master's degree or graduate-level credits in the subjects they teach.

The change could be a major blow to a growing number of students who rely on these dual-credit classes — often called College in the Schools — to earn college credits to take a bite out of their future higher education costs. Hundreds of high school educators in Minnesota could soon be barred from teaching the classes, forcing students to take courses at a local college or university or forgo them all together.

"We are talking about cutting off the program completely or spending millions on trying to get teachers in compliance," said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change, a St. Paul-based organization that has helped expand the dual-enrollment program.

The issue is emerging as a problem in Minnesota and around the country as the Higher Learning Commission, a nonprofit organization that accredits colleges and universities in 19 states, begins insisting on the new standards. Universities and colleges must comply with the commission's requirements by 2017 or risk losing their accreditation and state and federal grants.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, the Higher Learning Commission's president, said the group is trying to ensure that dual-credit courses are taught at the highest level. She said teachers interested in the classes should relish the incentive to deepen their knowledge of the subject matter. "You are never too old or too busy to forward your education," she said.

For decades, Minnesota schools have strongly embraced the dual-credit courses as a way for thousands of students to stay in their buildings and earn both high school and college credit. The courses are taught by high school teachers who are trained and monitored by local universities or colleges. State education officials tout the program as a way to boost access to college for low-income and minority students, particularly in rural areas.

The Legislature approved more than $4 million earlier this year to add dual-enrollment classes across the state.

With the new requirements, any course offered by a university, including dual-credit courses, must be taught by someone who has a master's degree in the area they teach or any master's degree plus 18 credit hours in the subject area they plan to teach.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said many dual-credit teachers have taught for years and have proved that they can teach a college-level course. "There are so many things that account for what makes a great teacher, and the only thing that the HLC is accounting for is whether you have 18 credits," she said.

Hundreds of teachers will not have the money or time in the next year and a half to get their credentials, she said. "I just don't know how our more experienced teachers are going to be able to afford it," she said.

For years, the commission has expected all educators teaching college-level courses to meet these standards, Gellman-Danley said. But it found some institutions were allowing educators without those credentials to teach, especially dual-credit courses. In 2014, the commission's board voted to make the credentials an explicit requirement.

Gellman-Danley said she was "surprised at the intensity" of the pushback in Minnesota. "We are not trying to disparage them or stop the program," she said. "What we are trying to do is create the best learning experience for the students in the high school so they can be successful in college."

In the 2014-2015 school year, 24,000 Minnesota students enrolled in dual-credit courses, up 30 percent since 2009. State education officials say more than 59,000 dual-credit courses were offered in Minnesota public schools.

The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system currently train the majority of dual-credit high school teachers. To date, they've coached about 2,000 teachers.

State and school district officials are trying to assess how many high school educators will be impacted by the toughened requirements, but they believe most teachers likely would not meet the standard.

Wayne Wormstadt, the superintendent of Windom Area Schools, said the district has six dual-credit teachers, but only one is likely to meet the new qualifications.

"We work so hard to offer these courses," said Wormstadt, who oversees the district of just over 1,000 students. He said dual credit gives his students easy access to college-level courses. Otherwise, they would have to travel more than 20 miles to the nearest college or university. "That's a disadvantage for our students, especially when we have trained teachers in the field that can assist them," he said.

Bryan Joyce is a dual-credit educator in the district who teaches economics and introduction to American politics. Under the new requirements, he will have to take six graduate-level courses in economics and six graduate-level courses in political science.

"I don't see why I would pay for those classes and then come back to teach in high school," Joyce said. "I would go teach high-level courses at a university and get paid for it."

Legislators, state education officials, superintendents and teachers say the requirements are not necessary because research shows the current system works, that students who complete the courses often finish college more quickly and with less debt.

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said there is "no research that shows what problem the HLC is trying to address here."

And Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, who sponsored the bill that expanded the dual-credit program this year, said he is concerned the state will likely need to pay millions of dollars to help teachers pay for their credentials. "We are working hard to see if the HLC will take a second look at their position," he said.

The HLC will likely not change the requirements, Gellman-Danley said. Colleges and universities will have plenty of time to comply with the new rules, she said. And the commission can grant a two-year extension, if necessary.

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028