If you give kids a chance to earn college credits for free while in high school, some are sure to want to spread the word to others.
That has been the case for the decades-old program, Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), which oddly enough, given the benefits provided to Minnesota students and families, needs all the advocacy it can get, supporters say.
School districts have been taken to task in recent years for failing to adhere to a state law requiring them to provide up-to-date information about the program to high school students.
Now, a youth-led group, People for PSEO, is making the case for state legislative changes aimed at strengthening PSEO's standing in a dual-credits field that also includes Advanced Placement and College in the Schools. It comes armed with a study detailing its financial benefits, but without the intention of eroding enrollment elsewhere.
"We're not here to pick a fight. We're here to start a conversation," said Zeke Jackson, executive director of People for PSEO and a University of Minnesota student.
Advanced Placement and College in the Schools give students the opportunity to earn college credits while taking courses in their home districts. PSEO, on the other hand, puts high school students on college or university campuses — or at their computers, as has been the case during the pandemic.
School districts are seen as reluctant to advertise PSEO to incoming 10th- to 12th-graders because they lose much of the revenue that participating students generate. A recent study commissioned by People for PSEO found that a district retains just $1,826 of the $10,845 that a full-time PSEO student would otherwise deliver to its bottom line.
"This reduction creates an incentive for districts not to encourage PSEO as an alternative, a fact that is reflected in comments from students," wrote the study's author, Mark Misukanis, who took the added step of estimating how much state taxpayers save when students choose PSEO — coming up with about $15.1 million annually after payments are made both to districts and higher-education institutions.
"There is a leftover gap in funding, and the state keeps it," Jackson said.
Misukanis, a senior consultant with New Pharos Consulting, is a former longtime fiscal analyst for the state Senate's education finance committee and director of finance and research for the state Office of Higher Education. People for PSEO paid $2,000 for his study; the group's annual budget is about $30,000, Jackson said.
Dual-credit courses are attractive to students and families because tuition, fees and books are free, and the credits, if accepted later by colleges and universities, reduce future costs and potential debt loads.
But how school districts promote and handle the various options, including PSEO in particular, can differ.
During recent meetings, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard has called on a student representative, Kalid Ali, to share his experiences as a PSEO student with a 16-credit workload, and Darren Ginther, the district's director of college and career readiness, has referred to students choosing PSEO for its organizational strengths in what for many has been an unsteady distance-learning environment.
Jackson, a 2019 graduate of Little Falls Community High School, said he took up the PSEO cause after being told by his principal he could not go to prom in his junior year while studying at the University of Minnesota.
Jackson said he resolved the issue in his favor, but wondered: "What if other students don't know how to figure this out?"
People for PSEO's legislative agenda seeks remedies for what it sees as an unlevel playing field between its participants and those who take dual-credit courses in their home districts.
According to the student handbook at Bemidji High School, for example, PSEO students are not eligible to receive a weighted grade-point average for credits earned through PSEO, but a student enrolled in the College in the Schools program, with classes taken through Bemidji State University, can earn weighted grades, the group states.
People for PSEO wants school boards to be required to adopt identical weighting policies, citing the boost the marks give to students' odds of acceptance to an institution they desire as well as the ability to win scholarships.
Jackson is studying finance and political science at the U while spending about 10 to 15 hours a week on People for PSEO duties.
Despite racking up credits in his junior and senior years of high school, he plans to graduate in 2023, saying he has a passion for education and the freedom — thanks to the financial aid he is receiving — to not have to exit early.
"There are plenty of subjects I want to learn about before I graduate," he said. "I am simply not ready to give this time up yet."
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109