Since 1985, Minnesota has offered high school students a handful of different options for earning free college credits. These “dual credit” programs have helped students skip entire years of college, emancipating their families from just as much debt.
The programs include College in the Schools (CIS), Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Project Lead the Way (PLTW), and Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). Each is free to the student, but they profit schools differently. As a result, some high schools actively discourage programs that may be better deals for the kids in favor of the ones that kick more cash back to them.
PSEO stands out from other programs because courses are taught on college campuses or online, rather than at high schools. This gives students a lot more choice in courses. If a kid is the only one from his high school who wants to take Native American languages, he can do it through PSEO. He doesn’t have to somehow convince his school to offer an entire AP class for it. Also, PSEO gives high school kids the experience of actually navigating a college campus and attending class with college students.
But from the high school’s point of view, each student is worth a certain amount of dollars from the state. That money goes where the kid goes, physically. In AP, the high school gets to keep 100 percent. In PSEO, the high school has to split that with the college.
Mike Jensen, a St. Francis High School parent, says that St. Francis actually offered a set of College in Schools-only incentives for kids who chose this program over PSEO. They included free parking in the prime spots closest to the school (usually $60 per trimester), an exclusive study lounge, and the privilege of going off campus for lunch.
“But the problem is, they just don’t have the variety of classes with CIS and AP and IB,” Jensen says. “They were just trying to encourage kids to stay in CIS for funding purposes, and discourage them from going into PSEO.”
It was only after arguing about disability rights and blatant bribery that Jensen and other parents got St. Francis to take those incentives off the table.
High school students say in some cases, schools tried to prevent them from enrolling in PSEO by weighting other dual credit programs more favorably. Even though they offer equally challenging coursework, getting an A in a CIS class might be worth more to a student’s grade point average than an A in PSEO. A tradeoff for saving money on college in the long run might jeopardize valedictorian status in the short term.
Sam Petrov, a former Richfield High School student, says he discovered too late that his school weighted dual credit programs differently depending on how lucrative they were. He successfully lobbied for level treatment with the help of the Center for School Change, which advocates for preserving the affordability and variety of Minnesota’s dual credit programs.
“It’s the idea that PSEO is kind of like this virus,” says student Hannah Quarrnstrom. “As soon as one student starts to do it and they get the idea that this is easy, they can do it, every student wants to do it. Everyone will start doing PSEO and the school will lose a bunch of money.”