A Graduate’s View: Minnesota’s Dual-Enrollment College Program Was My Ticket Out of Poverty. More HS Students of Color Need Access to It

(People for PSEO)

Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Options program, which provides free college for students in grades 10 to 12, has benefited countless students, promoted innovation in schools’ class offerings and saved taxpayers more than $15 million a year over other subsidized dual-enrollment programs. But as a former PSEO student, and the founder and president of People for PSEO, I know that even with many more students taking advantage of Post-Secondary Enrollment Options courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, far too many low-income students and Black, Indigenous and people of color lack access.

In 2020, a study by the Center of School Change demonstrated that although Minnesota state law requires districts and charter schools to post up-to-date information on their websites about PSEO, 90 percent did not. And while participation in PSEO overall has increased 25 percent between fiscal year 2010 and 2018, the percentage of students of color and low-income students remains lower than the overall proportion of these students in the state.

Concerns regarding the lack of diversity — and the mismatch between the demographics of students within Minnesota and enrollment in various types of dual-credit programs (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, PSEO, Concurrent Enrollment in college classes taught in high schools) — are not new. However, because of Minnesota’s glaring opportunity gaps, disparities in PSEO participation must be addressed. Data from the state Department of Education shows the 2019 four-year high school graduation rate overall for Black students is 70 percent, while for those who participate in even one PSEO or concurrent enrollment class, that percentage jumps to 94 percent. This effect is also seen for Latino, Asian and Native American students as well, whose graduation rates jump from 69 percent to 93 percent, 88 percent to 97 percent and 51 percent to 92 percent, respectively. Not only does participation in PSEO/concurrent courses increase the likelihood of graduating high school, research also shows that students who take dual-credit courses are more likely to enroll in and complete college than students who don’t, an effect separate from high school academic preparation and family socioeconomic status.

I participated in PSEO in 2010, during my junior and senior years of high school. Through the program, I earned 58 college credits at no cost to my family, which then allowed me to graduate with a bachelor’s degree at 19 years old and a master’s at 21. PSEO opened doors for me, a first-generation college student, that would have otherwise been closed. I was able to attend college without being saddled with debt. PSEO was my ticket out of poverty.

This experience isn’t unique to me, and none of the countless PSEO students I’ve spoken has ever indicated regret. In addition to saving thousands of dollars in tuition, PSEO allowed them a more flexible work schedule in order to better support their families. For some, participation gave them academic challenges outside of the other available programs, while for others PSEO provided a safe and accepting space outside their school community.

Because of the profound impact PSEO made in my life and the lives of these students, and the program’s potential for closing opportunity gaps, I founded People for PSEO. People for PSEO is a coalition of students, alumni and other supporters of the program who, through our collective advocacy efforts, aim to reduce college debt and break cycles of poverty in Minnesota by increasing PSEO enrollment.

These efforts included gaining bipartisan support from members of the Minnesota House and Senate for our 2019 policy platform, which included access to more courses for online PSEO students and a modification requiring secondary schools to disseminate updated PSEO information at a date falling in line with registration deadlines. We also have bipartisan support in the current legislative session. To increase awareness of PSEO, we have hosted informational events at many schools and community events. We also co-sponsored a St. Paul School Board Candidate Forum in October and the first PSEO Day on the Hill at the state Capitol in November 2019.

With tuition rates increasing and states divesting in higher education, student loan debt has skyrocketed to over $1.54 trillion, more than double the 2010 amount. The share of this debt is disproportionally felt by Black communities, who owe $7,400 more on average than their white peers. A recent study by New Pharos concludes that, “with dual enrollment programs, parents and students realize significant cost savings with lower tuition or debt payments in the future. Under PSEO alone, a reasonable estimate for FY 20-21 is $59.8 [million] annually.” President Joe Biden has made addressing racial inequities a priority of his administration, and nowhere are these inequalities seen more than our education system. Education that is frequently heralded as the great equalizer often ends up stratifying students based on their race or their socioeconomic status. We as a country need to support and invest in dual-credit programs and use them to close opportunity gaps, because when we invest in our children, we invest in our future.

Aaliyah Hodge is a former PSEO student and the current president and founder of People for PSEO.

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