Editorial: Accreditation rule changes put dual-credit courses at risk

Thousands of Minnesota students are simultaneously finishing high school and acquiring credit for college-level work by enrolling in dual-credit courses such as “College in the Schools.” They are reducing the costs of their post-high school education at a time when high tuition and student debt can keep them out.

Many educators, legislators and students believe that a new accreditation rule by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a college accreditation agency that covers 19 states including Minnesota, is putting our students at unnecessary risk of losing access to those courses.

Dual-credit programs are established with state legislative authorization and support. They create partnerships between high schools and post-secondary schools that benefit students, families and the economy.

The benefits go beyond college credit.

“Research has shown that participation in dual-enrollment programs can lead to improved academic outcomes for students such as greater secondary school completion, higher GPA, and increased likeliness of enrolling in and completing a post-secondary degree,” said John E. Uvin, acting assistant secretary, U.S. Dept. of Education for Career, Technical and Adult Education.

Last June the HLC Board of Trustees, chaired by David Anderson, president of St. Olaf College in Northfield, adopted new rules for accreditation that require all teachers of dual-credit courses in high schools to hold a master’s degree or 18 hours of graduate level course work in the field being taught with compliance to be in place by 2017. In Minnesota, as in other states, many of the teachers of dual-credit courses won’t meet master’s degree or additional course work requirement and those dual-credit courses would then be lost to students.

On Oct. 6, 2015 the Minnesota House and Senate Higher Education Committees held a joint hearing to review the new accreditation requirement. Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the HLC, testified on the new standard. Comments and questions from Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate reflected support in the direction the Minnesota program has taken. Legislators asked several times for evidence or data that defined the HLC basis for requiring additional credentials with one lawmaker asking, “What problem are we trying to fix?”

Testimony from students, administrators, teachers and professors from participating colleges and high schools described a well-defined, well-taught and well-monitored program. In over four hours of testimony no evidence was presented that disparaged the quality of dual-credit courses in Minnesota or the excellence of the sponsoring schools.

The assumption of the new accreditation requirement is that current dual-credit work and teaching at the high school level is below that of college and needs to be raised by requiring post-graduate teacher learning in the subject being taught. Minnesota legislators and educators directly challenged that requirement and asked for evidence of its need.

We believe there is a mutually shared goal to maintain (well-monitored) quality of post-secondary learning at a time when access to that learning is expanding to high school students for the better. Minnesota and the HLC working together could develop a new model of accreditation that meets a quality assurance goal without limiting student access to the programs.

Part of the solution may be found in the a section of the HLC rules that exempts university “teaching assistants” (teaching comparable courses at the college level) from the additional degree or course work because they are working under a professor at the university. Professors testifying at the Minnesota legislative hearing stated that high school dual-credit course teachers were functioning under a similar model, that is, the professors were specifying the curriculum and the training for high school dual-credit teachers.

The continued involvement of Minnesota legislators in this issue is extremely critical. We encourage Minnesota’s U.S. senators and members of Congress to become involved as well. The HLC is financially independent of the federal government but must meet federal expectations as a source of their authority and restrictions.

The Minnesota Department of Education, in conjunction with the MN P-20 Partnership (a Minnesota forum of school district and college leaders), should also take up the issue. This involvement will draw in the much needed participation of MnSCU Chancellor Rosenstone and University of Minnesota President Kaler. President Anderson from St. Olaf, given his position with the HLC, can contribute greatly to illuminate and address this important issue.

In November the HLC established a process for requesting an extension of the 2017 compliance deadline (effectively a five-year extension). That extension of time should also be used to create new more meaningful criteria for accreditation of dual-credit courses.

Increased and improved access to learning is a reality and requires new approaches to accreditation. Those efforts must be accomplished with a respect for the immediate and long-term needs of our learners and their families. This HLC accreditation issue gives us a good place to start.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board