Sending high school sophomores straight to college
Imagine 15-year-olds on a college campus near you. They’re not there for a campus tour, thinking about what colleges they’ll enroll in years from now. Instead they’re there as college students, taking courses and being treated by their professors just like their not-quite peers. That will now be possible, thanks to a new law that legislators passed and Gov. Mark Dayton signed this spring; the legislation allows sophomores to participate in so-called Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO).
“I think you’re going to get a mixed review on it from counselors,” said Kris Moe, a school counselor at Cottage Grove’s Park High School and a leader in state and national counselor associations. “If you ask me, I think that is a little early for a student to be on a college campus.”
There was little news of note this legislative session — and on the higher ed front as well. But two bills did become law that focused on college opportunities for high schoolers: Along with the one allowing sophomores to participate in PSEO, a separate bill offers advice for school districts about counseling. The likely impact of these laws, though, remains unclear.
Advice about the advisors
It’s an embarrassing fact: Minnesota has dramatically fewer counselors working with high school students than all but two other states, according to the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling. The average ratio here is 771 students per guidance counselor, compared to the national figure of 459-to-one. And all of our neighboring states have ratios lower than the national average.
“One thing we know about low-income families and first-generation families is that college isn’t something they fall into,” said Mary Cecconi, president, Parents United for Public Schools, a group that advocates on education issues at the Capitol. “Who is going to be there to spur them on? When you cut counselor ratios . . . who is going to do that?”
A bill passed this session that addresses this topic, Senate File 1073. But the legislation didn’t require action; it stated that “a school district is strongly encouraged to have an adequate student-to-counselor ratio.” The encouragement may sound positive, but it doesn’t appear likely to trigger changes within cash-strapped school districts. One issue is that the meaning “adequate” ratios is not defined, Moe said. And then there’s the issue that there’s no funding or requirement for action.
“Anytime you talk about ratios and mandates, it is a tough fight,” Moe said. “But we also have data that shows counselors help close the achievement gap.”
Ironically, the bill included more encouragement — this time for counselors — to work with all students by no later than 9th grade to develop a plan for post-high school education and jobs. “That’s what we do, as school counselors, but unfortunately, because some counselors have ratios that are ridiculous, we can’t do it as much as we want, with every student,” Moe said.
Could the passage of this bill at least help build agreement in future legislative sessions for putting money into improving the counselor-to-student ratio in Minnesota? Cecconi doesn’t hold out hope when asked about the odds of a future improvement. “Cut your braids off, Pollyanna,” she said.
Opening college courses to sophomores
More than 8,000 high school juniors and seniors already participate in PSEO. At Park High School, Moe sees it working well for students who are particularly mature and those who feel less comfortable in the high school setting. “For some students it is a wonderful thing.”
There are other ways for high school students to challenge themselves and start earning college credits that are more common than PSEO in Minnesota — and don’t involve leaving high school. These “dual-credit” options include Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.
What makes PSEO different? Its niche, when created, was to help students who had exhausted the offerings of their own high schools, to allow them to find more challenging courses at nearby colleges, said Jay Fedje, director of admissions at Bethel University. Bethel enrolls about 70 high school seniors a year, with many attending full-time and living on campus.
The perceived benefit of PSEO seems to be changing for families, Fedje said, to be more about lowering future costs for college by starting to earn credits early. However, high school students don’t always realize that not all colleges will treat these credits the same way. And then there’s the risk of earning poor grades. “If they start college, they start college. Once you start a college transcript it doesn’t go away,” he said. “There’s no asterisk that says, ‘they were age 15, take it easy on them.’”
Given the complexities of this choice, helping students and families weigh their options is important, Moe said. Minnesota’s high school counselors didn’t take a position on this bill, but they raised the need to help students with the process and if there are enough counselors in schools to support it.
Policymakers decided to allow sophomores to participate in PSEO, with House File 2949. The law limits this to “career or technical education,” focusing on MnSCU institutions.
While the legislation doesn’t encourage sophomores to attend a university like Bethel, Fedje notes that his experience has shown the challenges younger students face. “It is a rare junior we would ever take,” noting that even when they are advanced academically, juniors have had difficulty with the transition to doing college-level work.
Expanding possible PSEO participation appears to have been a way for policymakers to feel that they were doing something to help families address college costs, Fedje said, instead of doing something like increasing the State Grant program. Advocates, though, spoke about the change as one that would help families save money and improve academic performance for participating high schoolers.
As for the suitability of having sophomores on college campuses, Cecconi said her group had been supportive of a proposal to first study that, before sophomore enrollment in PSEO could start. But that idea was dropped from the final bill. And sometimes concerns about the appropriateness of the change got tangled up in the politics, with high schools seen by some as focused on losing funding if sophomores take courses in nearby colleges. “I do think the schools feel that they can provide a better emotional safety net for kids that age,” Cecconi said. “But what was said was, ‘You just want to keep the money.’”