New Minnesota tool to save college costs

This column originally was published by ECM Publications

New Minnesota tool to save college costs

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Students and families eager to save money on college costs have been given a new tool by state legislators.

Thousands of Minnesota students have had to take remedial courses, which they must pay for but can’t count toward graduation at two-year colleges or four-year universities.

For the first time, prospective college students will be able to avoid remedial courses at Minnesota’s public two-year colleges and four-year universities by passing the statewide reading and math tests known as Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs.

A 2015 Minnesota Office of Higher Education report found that between 9,100 and 10,200 college students per year enrolled in remedial courses between 2007 and 2012 within two years of graduating from high school. This was 27-29 percent of the students who graduated and entered colleges or universities. More than 50 percent of students who entered Minnesota’s public two-year colleges took remedial courses. Much more data on this is available from the MOHE report “Getting Prepared 2015,” found here:

Depending on how many remedial courses students took, the costs could be hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Previously students could avoid taking remedial (also known as developmental) courses by achieving an acceptable score on either the ACT or Accuplacer tests. However, as Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius explained in a phone interview, “Neither of these tests is tied directly to Minnesota’s standards in reading and math.”

The MCAs were developed to test what Minnesota has decided are state standards in reading, math and science. Moreover, the commissioner pointed out that high school students “can have as much time as they need” when taking the MCAs, unlike the ACT test, which is timed.

This year, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System – aka MnSCU, now called Minnesota State – and the Minnesota Department of Education will discuss what score students must earn on the MCAs to avoid remedial courses. Pakou Yang, the system director of P-20 and College Readiness, told me via email, “Minnesota State has yet to determine what the acceptable SAT and MCA scores are and plans to do so this upcoming year.”

State law requires MDE and the higher education system to agree. The Legislature asked that this be completed by Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, Cassellius told me that MDE will send information about each student’s performance on the MCAs to district and charter public schools during the first week in August. It will be up to high schools to share this information with individual students and their families.

Remedial courses are controversial not only because of their cost but also because some research questions their value. The statewide Students for Education Reform-Minnesota has shared research showing that, for at least some students, a “corequisite” approach is valuable. This allows students to register in college-level, rather than remedial, courses while receiving tutoring and other assistance.

Debates about remedial courses are continuing. Meanwhile, legislators wisely decided that they should provide a new way for students to “show what they know” and “test out” of remedial courses.

Hopefully by the end of 2016, MDE and the Minnesota State higher education system will agree on an MCA test score students will need to achieve to avoid remedial courses. That would be a valuable step forward for students and families throughout the state.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at