A recent decision by the Higher Learning Commission to change credentialing requirements for concurrent enrollment courses raises questions worth answering — to ensure that learners are put first.

Minnesota has been a leader in breaking down the barriers between high school and college. Minnesota was the first to begin postsecondary enrollment options, and for 30 years has had concurrent enrollment with the state's flagship University of Minnesota and it's College in the Schools (CIS) program.

The move by the Higher Learning Commission to require high school teachers who teach concurrent enrollment courses to have the same credentialing as their college counterparts has created a united fury among rural educators, suburban educators, political leaders and community advocates in Minnesota.

As the Higher Learning Commission seeks to break new ground and change a system that has proven results in Minnesota, it's important we gain answers to these two key questions:

• Are students who gain college credit in a high school classroom from a teacher with graduate credentials in the course subject matter learning more, and becoming more successful in college, than students who earned their credits from teachers whose graduate studies were designed to increase their teaching skills? Or is there no difference?

• Are teachers with graduate credentials in course subject matter more effective high school teachers than teachers whose graduate studies were designed to increase their teaching skills? Or is there no difference?

Unless the answer to both of these questions is clearly "yes," then one has to conclude that this change is being driven by factors unrelated to outcomes. Perhaps the commission has done research on this and will enlighten Minnesota at a joint legislative hearing on the issue on Thursday. If not, then its reasoning must be probed.

If the answer is "yes" to one or the other of these questions, then Minnesota should change its practice. But to change 25 years of practice within 23 months is entirely unrealistic and will leave many high school students without currently available concurrent enrollment courses.

Fortunately, Minnesota has a tool to discover some answers: SLEDS (State Longitudinal Educational Data System). SLEDS may have to be supplemented by additional data, but Minnesota's schools and teachers will cooperate willingly in this endeavor.

The commission should grant the Minnesota Colleges and Universities system a general exemption to the proposed rule and help fund the research. They should heed the advice of Sen. Al Franken " … to continue the use of holistic qualifications for academic faculty and not go ahead with the proposed rule change at this time," as he stated in a Sept. 16 letter to commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley.

Should the answers to the questions above be "no," then this holistic approach should be codified and made part of the higher education accreditation standards.

Minnesota over the past 25 years has experienced both an explosion of K-12 teachers holding curriculum and instruction master's degrees and an explosion of dual-credit, concurrent courses in high schools taught by teachers with these master's degrees under the auspices and with the blessing of Minnesota's public colleges and universities.

I have participated in both of these trends. As superintendent of Eden Valley-Watkins Schools from 1995-2002, I oversaw expansion of a shortlist of three dual-credit courses into a full year's worth of college credits in six different disciplines.

For rural schools, concurrent enrollment is the most effective way for students to experience the rigor of college-level courses, earn free credits, and participate in all of the high school sports, activities and rituals that build lifetime bonds.

I also served as graduate faculty for Southwest State University, facilitating a curriculum and instruction master's program for 32 K-12 teachers. This was a weekend cohort program designed to have the teachers become master teachers and earn a master's degree in the process. Cohort models like this have been replicated across Minnesota. They work efficiently for the universities. They work for teachers, because Minnesota schools accept these degrees for salary advancement.

Without a Minnesota exemption, like subatomic particles in an accelerator, these two trends will collide Sept. 1, 2017, with devastating results for our students.

Fred Nolan, of St. Cloud, is executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.