Opinion: 100 percent price increase from MnSCU is way too much

By Joe Nathan
Guest Columnist

The Minnesota State College and University System has unwisely and quietly decided to double the cost of many concurrent enrollment courses offered in Minnesota high schools over the next several years.

These courses, taught by high school teachers under the supervision and mentorship of MnSCU faculty, allow students to earn college credit.

Many two-year MnSCU colleges helped high schools offer these opportunities over the past 20 years, though prices varied. Many two-year colleges use the policy described by Michael Werner, academic and community outreach dean at Anoka-Ramsey Community College: The high school is charged $2,500 the first time a concurrent enrollment course is offered and $1,500 subsequent times.

The new policy requires all MnSCU two-year colleges to charge $3,000 per course. That’s double the $1,500 that many of these institutions currently charge for the second and subsequent years of the class.

Doug Anderson, MnSCU’s director of communications and media confirmed, “The new fee model will replace the current pricing model and will be phased in over a three- to five-year period beginning fiscal year 2018,” (the 2017-18 school year). MnSCU allows campuses to phase in new prices earlier.

Ironically, as it’s significantly increasing high school schools’ costs of offering two-year college courses, MnSCU announced on May 18 that it is decreasing tuition for “regular” two-year college students. Though MnSCU apparently decided to increase concurrent enrollment course costs in April, it has not issued a press release discussing this. MnSCU had not even told Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius, who expressed surprise when contacted for her reaction.

Cassellius believes: “As more and more jobs require postsecondary education, the costs of higher ed increasingly present barriers to students. Any increase in costs should raise concerns and be closely examined for impacts to equitable opportunity for our diverse student body and rural small schools.”

Many district and charter leaders share my alarm. Recently, I’ve interviewed 27 of them. More than 80 percent are quite concerned about the increase.

Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen told me, “While I understand their desire to align their system, any cost increases above ‘cost of living’ puts pressure on an already stressed K-12 financial system and could lead to decreased opportunities for students.”

Four-year MnSCU state universities already charge more than two-year colleges for concurrent enrollment courses. St. Cloud State charges $3,276 per 3- or 4-credit course and Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall charges $3,000 on average per course.

The new phased-in MnSCU price for four-year universities by the 2021-22 school year will be $3,300, a slight change. MnSCU also will allow four-year institutions to charge an additional $110 per student if there are more than 30 students in a class or if students are enrolled in additional sections of the same course.

The new policy creates special challenges for small districts and charters: Higher prices will apply to each “mentor-mentee relationship per course,” so there is no additional charge if a high school offers several sections of the same course – an approach more typical for a larger school.

MnSCU’s Anderson wrote via email that the new pricing policy “was developed to account for all of the direct costs incurred in offering concurrent enrollment courses, and it ensures consistent business practices across our state colleges and universities.”

Consistency across a system can be valuable. A concurrent enrollment or PSEO course taught in one MnSCU institution is accepted at all MnSCU institutions. However, the dramatic mandated price increase will make offering these courses much more difficult in many communities. That’s not good for students or families.

Here are reactions from area leaders:

Zena Stenvik, interim director of teaching and learning at Columbia Heights Public Schools, explained that the district is not offering any concurrent enrollment courses, but it is working with Anoka Ramsey Community College to establish a concurrent enrollment program. “Therefore, the district is not paying any fees at this time. The district will begin concurrent enrollment courses with Anoka-Ramsey Community College during the 2017-2018 school year. The district is planning and has budgeted for $3,000 per section for each course offered.”

She continued: “However, in preparation for the concurrent enrollment program, the district is offering a ninth-grade college math preparation course this year. Next school year the district will offer both a 10th-grade college English course and the ninth-grade college math preparation course.”

Columbia Heights was the only one of the 24 district and three charter public schools I talked with that knew about the new prices. Stenvik wrote: “Since the district has been working closely with Anoka-Ramsey Community College to create a concurrent enrollment plan, the district has been aware of the current fee structure and potential rate increases and has planned accordingly. The district maintains its commitment to offering a concurrent enrollment pathway with Anoka-Ramsey Community College.”

Jeffrey McGonigal, associate superintendent for high schools with the Anoka-Hennepin School District, explained: “Between our five high schools, we offer 27 (concurrent enrollment) courses. That is a duplicate count as the same course could be counted more than once if it is offered at more than one school.” He also explained: “Our current agreement with Anoka-Ramsey Community College says that we will pay $2,500 per course the first time a course is taught by a high school partner teacher and $1,500 per course any subsequent times a course is taught by the high school partner teacher. For St. Cloud State, we are paying a base fee for 3- and 4-credit classes of $3,276 and $5,460 for five credit classes.

They prorate the fees for 1- and 2-credit classes. For the U of M College in the Schools (CIS) courses, we are paying $145 per student.”

McGonigal’s response to the change: “A price increase would not be helpful in terms of funding this important program. However, I am aware the Minnesota public colleges and universities also have funding needs.”

Peter Wieczorek, director of Northwest Passage High School, explained that the school also collaborates with the Anoka-Hennepin district and Anoka Technical College in their STEP program. The school currently is not offering any concurrent enrollment classes.

In a January 2016 report to its trustees, MnSCU leadership noted the system has run multimillion-dollar deficits in the past couple of years, in part because of declining enrollment. I understand the need for a balanced budget and that MnSCU has been told not to increase tuition.

But dictating price increases of up to 100 percent to already financially challenged high schools with which it is collaborating does not seem appropriate. I hope Gov. Mark Dayton and state legislators will encourage MnSCU to reconsider the size of this increase.

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 [email protected]