Free College Credit is a huge gift for Minnesota students

The column below originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during December, 2022.


Free college credit is a huge gift for Minnesota students


As we prepare for December holidays, here’s a huge present that the Legislature has given to Minnesota high school students and families: Minnesota offers the most extensive opportunities in the country for students and families to save thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, in college and university costs. Students can take both academic and more applied career/technical courses. This column is appearing now because many high school students will register in January for their 2023-24 courses. Here are the options available.

Students can earn free college credit in two basic ways: 1. taking courses in their high school, online or on a college or university campus, or 2. passing an exam.

Students might study the Minnesota Office of Higher Education website,  showing which courses and exams are accepted for free credit by Minnesota colleges. While MOHE found that 95% of Minnesota Colleges and Universities accept some of these courses, they don’t all accept everything that’s offered.

Students considering enrolling outside Minnesota should check with those institutions.

Partly because high schools want to challenge all students and partly because the Minnesota Legislature created Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) in 1985, and then decided to fund additional dual credit options, Minnesota high schools have responded by offering a vast array of courses for college credit on their campuses. No Minnesota high school offers all of them. Policies also vary among high schools about “grade weighting” of these courses. So check with counselors or high school websites. These courses include:

  1. Advanced Placement. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 37,000 high school students took AP courses in the 2019-20 school year. The courses are free, but to receive free college credit, students must score well on a final exam. The Legislature covers the cost of the exam for students receiving free/reduced price lunches. Some districts also pay for the exams..
  2. International Baccalaureate: This program, headquartered in Switzerland, also offers free courses in some Minnesota high schools. As with AP, free college credit is awarded if students do well on a final exam. Financial arrangements for this exam are the same as those for AP. Students also can earn an IB Diploma. More than 3,800 Minnesota students took IB courses in 2019-20.
  3. College in the Schools, Concurrent Enrollment. Almost 33,000 Minnesota high school students took these courses in 2019-20. Colleges train high school faculty to offer these courses. Free college credit depends on how well a student did over the entire semester or year of the class, not just (as with AP and IB) how well the student did on the final exam.
  4. Project Lead the Way: Several Minnesota high schools offer these courses, which focus on engineering, computer science and biomedical science.

Free courses on college/university campuses or online are available through PSEO. MDE reports about 7,400 public school students, 1,900 home-school students and 1,150 private school students participated in these courses in 2019-20


Paj Ntaub speaking at 2012 ceremony in which

PSEO was extended from 11-12th grades into the 10th grade


A key issue here is getting accurate information. A 2022 study found that less than half of Minnesota districts provide all the information that state law requires them to give to students in grades 8-11 and their families, on district and charter public school websites. For example, less than half of these websites explained that students can use their public high school’s computers to take PSEO courses. Information that the state law requires be given to students and families is found here. The report on information appearing on websites is here.

Each college sets its own admissions standards for PSEO. Another part of PSEO is the Early Middle College Program, available through some districts and intermediate districts 287 and 917. This allows students who don’t meet traditional admission standards to take PSEO courses and receive extra help.

College credit can also be obtained via exams:

  • Minnesota’s Bilingual Seals program allows students to earn free college credit in the Minnesota State (Public Colleges and Universities) System, if they show proficiency in any of more than 20 languages.
  • The College Level Exam Program gives 90-to-120-minute exams that can lead to free college credit. CLEP payment arrangements vary among districts.

Retired University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks told me: “Dual credit enrollment is a winning strategy for students: better preparation for full-time college work; lower cost and less debt; and more creative academic choices as a future college student. And, the public wins by achieving more productive use of limited resources.” I agree.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: or @joenathan9249 on Twitter.