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Even though Minnesota frequently ranks at or near the top of the nation in average ACT composite scores, “dramatic achievement and test participation gaps persist for students of color,” according to a Minnesota Office of Higher Education report.

Dual credit programs

Reporter Casey Selix recently wrapped up a three-day series on programs that let teens earn college credits while still in high school.

Day One: New trends emerging after 25 years of dual credit programs

Day Two: Low-income and at-risk students the focus

Day Three: Meet five students who took advantage of the programs

Last year, Minnesota’s overall 22.7 composite ACT score was the highest in the nation. When the data were sliced by race and ethnicity, scores ranged from a high of 23.7 for whites to a low of 17.8 for blacks.

Closing such achievement gaps is the goal of early college access programs emerging across the nation. While Minnesota is the pioneer in offering high-school students an opportunity to earn free college credits, the typical Post-Secondary Education Options (PSEO) student is academically accomplished, white and female.

“We are trying to support more students taking college credit while in high school,” said Karen Klinzing, assistant commissioner of education in Minnesota. “One of the reasons is that we know that more students want to go to college. We have 70 percent of students who voluntarily take the ACT … one of the highest volunteer rates for ACT tests in the nation. They wouldn’t take the ACT if they didn’t think they wanted to go to college.”

But of those 70 percent who take the test, Klinzing said, only 32 percent “get a score that’s considered college-ready” in all four subject areas. “One of the things a PSEO, or a concurrent-enrollment class, can do for students is to help them to understand the rigor of the courses they’re preparing for.”

Early college access programs are gaining increasing attention nationally as a way of supporting and preparing students who might otherwise have difficulty for higher education.

dual credits and low-income students
Greg Darnieder

“The research out there shows that these programs are critically important to helping first-generation and minority students to surround them with support systems in high schools while they are being exposed to higher education expectations and the cultures of these campuses, so they establish a sense of confidence in these environments,” said Greg Darnieder, adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Secretary’s Initiative on College Access.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funder of the Early College High School Initiative, now active in 212 schools in 25 states. Other Gates beneficiaries include Oregon’s Gateway to College Network, which works with 100 school districts in eight states, and the Middle College National Consortium, with programs in 20 states.

Boosting minority participation in AP classes

Last fall, Minnesota won a $4.5 million federal grant to boost the number of minority students in Advanced Placement classes and to track their progress in AP and the International Baccalaureate program.

Again, participation by under-represented students is low, but success rates are starting to budge — a little. In the state’s public high-school classes of 2009, for example, 1.5 percent of AP students (or 136) who earned a score of 3 or higher on at least one exam were black or African American compared with 1.4 percent in the class of 2008 and 0.7 percent in the class of 2004.

“We are very excited” about the grant’s potential to improve access, said Sally Wherry, supervisor of high-school initiatives in the Minnesota Department of Education’s Center for Postsecondary Success.

The state is working with the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts as well as most of their public high schools and their feeder schools on pre-AP types of classes. “The intended outcome is to increase the numbers of under-represented and minority students to not only enroll but earn college-level exam credits,” she said.

Minnesota also plans to create a website for parents and students to get information about AP and other programs. “In many cases, first-generation parents or parents who didn’t go beyond high school don’t know what information is available, and they don’t know where to get it if they” had heard about it, she said.

dual credits and low-income students
Sheena Thao, a former PSEO student, now works at the Center for School Change at Macalester College with Joe Nathan, its director. (MinnPost photo by Daniel Corrigan)

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College, isn’t overly troubled by school districts steering students to in-house programs like concurrent enrollment, AP and IB instead of to Post-Secondary Education Options on college campuses. All are part of Minnesota’s efforts to prepare students for higher education and to help them earn college credits along the way, he said.

“I think that school reform is a bit like a toolbox,” said Nathan, who provided research to legislators during school reform in the 1980s. “If you think about building a house, you need to think about a variety of tools.”

Not every tool fits the task. “One of the challenges with PSEO, and I think it’s a big one, is transportation” to college campuses, said Nathan, who also helped students and families testify at the 1980s legislative hearings.

But, he agrees, Minnesota needs to do a better job of bringing more under-represented students into its early access programs.

‘No intent to be exclusive’

It’s a disconcerting situation for a state known for putting out the welcome mat to refugees from war-torn countries like Vietnam, Laos, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Liberia. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population outside of Somalia and to one of the largest Hmong populations outside of Southeast Asia. The Latino population is also one of the fastest-growing demographics in the state.

“There is absolutely no intent to be exclusive,” said Wherry. “Our whole purpose is to open these programs up and make students more aware and more involved in them.”

As a former PSEO student and now the outreach and public information coordinator for the Center for School Change, Sheena Thao is well aware of the academic disparities and access issues. She thinks she probably wouldn’t have known about PSEO if her older sister hadn’t participated.

But she’s working tirelessly to make it easier for today’s under-represented students, said Nathan, her boss.

“The report we did in 2005 about PSEO is definitely clear that these dual-enrollment programs are very beneficial for students, but the students who are benefitting are mainly white, middle-class students … and the students of color participation rates are very low,” said Thao, who earned a bachelor’s from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and a master’s from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Spreading the word

“That’s where I come in. I go out to the community and schools to talk about these programs to students and parents, to put information in their hands so they know about it. I talk about my own experience. It’s always good to have someone who has similar experiences saying, ‘Hey, if I can do it, you can do it.’ ”

dual credits and low-income students
Joel Vargas, program director of Boston-based Jobs for the Future (Photo by Ralph Alswang)

Meanwhile, nonprofit early-access programs in the nation seem to be holding their own in the recession so far, said Joel Vargas, program director of Boston-based Jobs for the Future, which oversees the Early College High School Initiative.

“They’re less vulnerable, I think, than the states that have line items that fund dual-credit because those are easier to cut,” said Vargas.

Cecilia Cunningham, executive director of the Middle College National Consortium in Long Island, N.Y., worries about the recession’s impact on early-college-access efforts.

“In tight financial times people tend to hunker down to hold on to what they have, and in order to push forward you have to really re-conceptualize how kids” will progress through a K-20 system, Cunningham said. “It’s the best and worst of times simultaneously.”

Plus, the work is neither easy nor cheap.

“It’s very labor-intensive,” she said. “There’s no magic to helping a young person who comes into high school behind. Some say that if they come in two years behind, you might as well give up. We’re saying the opposite. If you push ahead, with enough support, you and they can figure out how to catch up on basic gaps.”

For example, DePaul University in Chicago found that the six-year graduation rate of students who attended College Bridge classes at DePaul ranged from 80 percent at selective institutions to 91 percent at non-selective institutions, said Brian Spittle, DePaul’s assistant vice president for access and attainment.

“Those are very significant rates,” Spittle said. “I think they speak for themselves because these students are not always coming in with a high-school profile or standardized test scores that would suggest such high rates of graduation.”

DePaul’s six-year graduation rate — without any early intervention — is 63 percent, he said.

The nation’s six-year graduation rate is 57.5 percent for four-year institutions. Even though Minnesota ranks fourth in the nation for highest percentage of residents with two years of college or higher, its six-year graduation rate at four-year institutions is the same as the national average, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Minnesota barely edges out the nation in three-year graduation rates for two-year colleges: 33.3 percent vs. 32.3 percent.

Working with high-school dropouts

Portland Community College, which founded Gateway to College in 2000, works with high-school dropouts and under-represented teens to complete their diplomas while earning college credits. More than half of the PCC students have received their high-school diplomas, said Linda Huddle, a Gateway founder and director of PCC’s Prep Alternative Programs.

That might not sound like a lot, she said, but consider that many entered the program with a 1.6 grade point average, fewer than 10 high school credits and an average age of 17.

“To get over 50 percent of the students gaining a high school diploma earned through taking college courses — not high-school courses — is quite an accomplishment,” Huddle said.

Of the 1,880 students enrolled in the PCC program over 10 years, 372 have continued their education at a community college, 129 earned an associate of arts degree, 133 went on to a four-year institution, 48 earned bachelor’s degrees and one has received a master’s.

“When you look at the numbers of dropouts and potential dropouts, it represents a great pool of human capacity that can’t really be overlooked or just discarded,” Huddle said. “We just can’t give up on these kids because they are not being successful in a traditional setting. … So it’s in everyone’s best interest — from a financial level, from a psychological level, from a community health level — to consider young people as the greatest investment that we can make.”

Coaxing teens to the college track

dual credits and low-income students
Jim McCorkell

Ten years ago, Jim McCorkell founded Admission Possible and launched a quest to coax low-income teens to get on the college track and to graduate from college. The nonprofit started with 35 students at Arlington High School in St. Paul, coaching them on everything from ACT tests and writing a good essay to applying for financial aid and visiting college campuses.

The organization, which has expanded to Milwaukee, now reaches 6,000 students starting in the ninth grade. About 95 percent are students of color. The six-year college graduation rate for Admission Possible students is 50 percent, not that far off from the 57.5 percent rate in Minnesota and the United States. But consider where these kids started, says McCorkell, now the CEO.

“We take kids who have many more obstacles than most kids,” said McCorkell, among the first PSEO enrollees. “The average ACT score when they begin the program is about 14.5, which is the bottom-10th percentile. … Those are not kids that would typically be going off to a four-year college, but we’re able to get them into college at a very high rate (98 percent are accepted) and they basically do as well as their upper-income, above-average peers do.”

But not enough is being done, he said, to help low-income kids land on a path to college.

“I think we have to do better,” he said. “I think the nature of the problem for low-income kids, whether it’s getting them to take PSEO courses or getting them to take AP or IB courses, or even taking college curriculum … a lot comes down to low-income students just don’t get the information they need to do the right thing.”

The future

So, what’s next for Minnesota and the early access movement?

Assistant Commissioner Klinzing thinks online college courses will become an even larger part of PSEO and concurrent enrollment programs in Minnesota.

“It’s (online) opened up a whole new world — particularly for outstate Minnesota,” she said.

dual credits and low-income students
Karen Klinzing

Another big change under way — and promising more of the same — is concurrent-enrollment articulation agreements between technical colleges and high schools. “It’s not just for gifted students,” she said of the early access programs.

An example is preparing students for the heavy technical reading required in a two-year auto mechanics program.

“One of the things a student is going to encounter … is the auto mechanics manual, which demands the highest level of reading ability of any other technical reading that we can find in the occupations,” Klinzing said, adding that “students who might have been tracking toward becoming an auto mechanic may not have much instruction in technical reading.”

Elsewhere, Cunningham of the Middle College National Consortium thinks funding difficulties will lead to more focused approaches.

“The next cutting edge of this is, let’s not say students will take any 24 credits,” she said. “Let’s say, there’s a bank of 12 or 15 credits that lend themselves to success … so that as cuts happen we spend money on this set of courses because it yields the highest results.”

Huddle of Portland Community College sees improvements to GEDs and alternative schools programs. “In our area there are many community-based alternative schools, so we’re very intent on creating post-secondary portals or on-ramps into the colleges and universities here so that high school is not a terminal point for students but a beginning point,” she said.

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