College in schools defended against attacks by St Olaf College Pres et. al

This column originally was published by ECM Publishers, Inc. via, 10-14-2015


College in the Schools defended against attacks by St. Olaf College president, et. al

More than 200 students, educators, parents and community leaders from throughout Minnesota attended the Oct. 8 hearing. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

More than 200 students, educators, parents and community leaders from throughout Minnesota attended the Oct. 8 hearing. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Legislative hearings rarely last four hours.

But on Oct. 8, a joint Minnesota Senate and House Higher Education Committee hearing lasted that long. Dozens of rural, suburban and urban district and charter educators, plus students and state leaders, challenged the ironically named “Higher” Learning Commission’s attack on Minnesota’s research-based, money-saving College in the Schools, aka concurrent enrollment, courses. (Watch a video of the hearing at

For 30 years, these courses have allowed Minnesota high school students to earn college credit via courses taken on high school campuses.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, wrote that the HLC demand “is a bit like a healthy patient with no sickness or malady being prescribed a treatment that has dangerous side effects to treat a nonexistent condition.”

The HLC board is chaired by St. Olaf College President David Anderson. He and other St. Olaf staff have not responded to numerous email and phone requests for comment from many educators, including me, except to defer questions to the HLC staff. Ironically, one question to which they have not responded is why it’s acceptable for St. Olaf to employ teaching faculty who don’t have a master’s degree, while insisting that high school faculty who teach college-level courses earn these degrees. St. Olaf also has one of Minnesota’s least accepting policies toward credit for Advanced Placement, Postsecondary Enrollment Options, and College in the Schools. Many institutions grant up to two years of credit; St. Olaf grants less than a year.

Testimony from HLC President Barbara Gellman-Danley showed that her organization, despite having a 50-member staff, had no research to support its demands that Minnesota change its programs. Asked several times by legislators for research supporting her views, Gellman-Danley responded, “This is the way we do things.”

Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin School District high schools, explained that the district currently has 28 teachers offering concurrent enrollment courses to 1,618 juniors and seniors – “Only five of those teachers meet HLC’s demands for credentials.” Anoka-Hennepin’s program has saved its high school seniors more than $3.4 million over the last four years. McGonigal pointed out that the change would cost district families up to $1.9 million just this year.

Jon Peterson, St. Paul Public Schools’ office of college and career readiness director, pointed out that for every dollar the district invested in its concurrent enrollment courses, families saved $12.

If research showed that concurrent enrollment students are not successful in college, the HLC would have a point. However, Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL–Apple Valley, shared evidence that University of Minnesota College in the Schools students graduate earlier than students who don’t take them. He also noted that 93 percent of University of Minnesota CIS students reported successfully transferring some or all credits earned, while 84 percent completed an undergraduate degree in four years and 10 percent completed their degree early.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who co-chaired the hearing, wrote via email: “Before the hearing I was concerned about the potential impact of the HLC change. I left our hearing with an appreciation of how impactful concurrent enrollment is in our rural schools and how devastating, if implemented, the change could be for those schools in particular. We will now ask the HLC to reconsider their position in light of what we heard. We do so because we know our students’ success depends on their ability to access higher education at an affordable price in an approachable manner.”

After listening to the four hours of testimony, Clausen, in an email sent to me later, concluded: “The Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) recently adopted teacher credentialing standards will create a major barrier for high school students to earn college credit. For 30 years Minnesota has developed and invested in concurrent enrollment programs, creating pathways for students to a postsecondary education. During the 2014-2015 school year, this investment resulted in 24,731 Minnesota students enrolled in concurrent enrollment courses (up 40 percent since 2007), 208,629 college credits earned, saving families an estimated $38.7 million in college tuition costs.

“The HLC’s apparent intent to ensure qualified teachers in our classrooms has always been a Minnesota priority. However, the HLC’s credentialing standards lack academic research and data-driven decision making. I urge the HLC to accept current University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities concurrent enrollment policies and procedures. These policies and procedures have proven to be effective and served our state well in providing high-quality postsecondary opportunities for students.”

Nelson defended Minnesota’s approach, presenting at the hearing this testimony, which she later emailed to me: “Students taking concurrent enrollment graduate at higher rates from high school, … earn higher GPAs and graduate from college quicker and with less student debt than their peers. … Dual enrollment helps close the achievement gap. What good can come out of this ill-advised, data-void, expensive new standard?

“The HLC could not describe the good that would emanate from their decision, but the four-hour hearing was full of the harm that would result: fewer teachers able to teach concurrent enrollment, less students graduating (with) high school college credits, higher college costs for students. …”

Nelson urged: “In the absence of any data demonstrating any benefit to students, the HLC should at least do no harm. … Exempt dual enrollment from this ‘blast from the past’ mentality of measuring success via inputs instead of outputs.”

She concluded, wisely, “This is not over.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at