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Carla Nelson: We should protect students' concurrent-enrollment option

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For the first time in our nation's history, credit card debt has been eclipsed by an even more insidious type of debt — student debt. With the cost of tuition increasing steadily, students are leaving college with more and more student debt.

That debt is forcing many young people to wait longer to get married, buy their first home and start a family.

But there are some ways to make college more affordable. One great way kids can get a leg up is to take advantage of Minnesota's concurrent-enrollment program.

Concurrent enrollment allows Minnesota high school students to earn college and high-school credits in local high schools. It has saved families thousands of dollars in higher-education costs.

But a new requirement by the Higher Learning Commission will put this highly successful program at risk.

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The commission is a nonelected, nonappointed, nonprofit organization that accredits colleges and universities across the country, including 114 in Minnesota. The group recently adopted a new credentialing standard that would limit the ability of schools to offer dual-credit concurrent-enrollment courses.

The new standard will require concurrent-enrollment teachers to have a master's degree in the field, or a master's degree in another field and 18 graduate credits in the field they are teaching.

The Higher Learning Commission president states the intent is to make sure all college-credit courses are taught by a quality teacher. There is no data to support the new standard for teacher qualifications. The case is just the opposite.

Research repeatedly has shown concurrent enrollment closes graduation gaps, increases graduation rates and improves student performance in college. It has a record of improving outcomes for minority students, and it helps low-income families pay for college. Concurrent-enrollment students graduate from college more quickly, with higher GPAs and less debt, than their peers.

It is unclear what problem the Higher Learning Commission is trying to solve. Yet the fallout from the new standard is clear: Fewer high school students will be earning college credit, and more teachers will need to take graduate coursework.

Minnesota's current concurrent program is nothing but successful, and we are a national leader in supporting our students, families and local schools through dual enrollment. This is why I successfully sponsored bipartisan legislation to increase concurrent-enrollment options.

The new teacher qualification standard will reduce the number of teachers who can teach concurrent-enrollment classes. With even fewer teachers available, many schools will be forced to drop or limit their concurrent-enrollment programs.

This will reduce access to higher education and increase costs for families throughout Minnesota. It would be particularly harmful for low-income families, Greater Minnesota families and our growing minority populations.

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School leaders from across Minnesota, including urban, suburban and Greater Minnesota schools, have voiced opposition to the change. I have been working with education experts, local officials and my fellow legislators to stop this new standard.

It is unusual to have such a broad consensus on any issue. The bipartisan opposition to the new requirement is an indicator of how devastating it would be for our students, their families and local school districts.

Intervention is needed.

On 1 p.m. Oct. 8, a joint meeting of the Senate and House committees on higher education will be held in the State Office Building's basement hearing room. Public testimony will be taken, including from the Higher Learning Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley.

You too can attend and provide comments to the committee, or you can email comments to me and I will submit them as part of the public testimony.

You can help protect concurrent enrollment. Contact your congressmen, your senators and Gov. Mark Dayton. Ask them to press the Higher Learning Commission to exempt concurrent enrollment from the new standard on teacher qualifications. Talk about it on social media and encourage your friends and family to do the same. The most effective way to fight the new standard is with public involvement and strong support for concurrent enrollment.

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