Joe Nathan: At 18, Minnesota Student Graduates High School and College

by Joe Nathan

Eighteen-year-old David Greer is remarkable. He’s just earned a high school diploma and a four-year college degree. He may be the first Minnesotan to use Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options law to pay all the costs of tuition, book and lab fees for a bachelor’s degree. The University of Minnesota, Morris recently awarded him a B.A. in statistics.

Since 1985, Minnesota’s Post Secondary Options law has allowed high school juniors and seniors to take all or part of their courses on a college campus.  State funds follow students, paying all tuition, book and law fees.  The law was expanded in 2012 to permit high school sophomores to take one career/technical course on a college campus.  Tenth graders who earn at least a “C” in the first course can take additional courses.

Greer’s family lives in Northfield, where he has been homeschooled. Last year as a high school junior, he earned an A.A degree by driving to, and taking some online classes through, nearby South Central College in Faribault. He spent his senior year on the University of Minnesota, Morris campus.  PSEO paid his tuition, books and fees, and his family paid for housing and meals.  Greer is pictured above along with his father Bryan, and mother, Stacey.

Last week David told me via email: “The PSEO program at the University of Minnesota at Morris has been amazing. … I’m extremely grateful to the university for helping me to speed up my education beyond anything I could have imagined. … My education at Morris has given me a solid foundation for my future career.”

Greer also noted, “I’m currently seeking employment as an actuarial analyst.”  His persistence, along with many other skills, suggests he could be a great employee!

Greer is not the first to earn an A.A. degree via PSEO.

As previous columns explained, the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle School District in Central Minnesota has graduated such students for several years. Give that district considerable credit. LPGE and Central Lakes Community College educators created a partnership allowing high school students to earn an A.A. degree while taking courses entirely in the high school.

Spectrum High School, a charter in Elk River, has a similar program. In 2013, a Spectrum student graduated with an A.A. degree that included taking courses on a college campus. This year a Spectrum student earned an A.A. degree via courses taken entirely in the high school. The Mounds View district has established a similar program to help a broad range of students earn these degrees.

These are all constructive, pro-student collaborative efforts that respond to families’ concerns about college costs and readiness. Recent research shows that Minnesota college graduates have the nation’s fourth highest debt, more than $31,000. That does not include students who didn’t graduate in part because of finances.

Bart Finzel, vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean, University of Minnesota, Morris told me via email that  “We were very happy to have assisted this atypical student in realizing his aspiration for a college degree.”

Karen Hynick, director of College Readiness with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, MnSCU, believes Greer “is a wonderful example of Minnesota’s secondary and postsecondary education systems working together to provide the individual learner with the type of rigorous curricular experiences that he/she was ready to experience regardless of age and demonstrates how collaborative systems can work together to better advance students’ needs and leverage state resources.”

PSEO, as its name suggests, is an option. It’s not for everyone.

Marisa Gustafson of the Center for School Change has analyzed a 2012 Minnesota Department of Education report that shows about 62,000 students used Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or College in the Schools (also called concurrent enrollment) and about 6,300 used PSEO.

A student I’ll call “Denny” recently told me that he’s a senior at Eagan who has taken two CIS courses and five AP tests. Denny said in an email: “I had friends who did the PSEO program for classes such as econ and had a blast; however, it just didn’t seem very practical for a lot of students. … If we could easily get the credits under AP tests or CIS classes, why would we have to make the 15-minute journeys there and back from these campuses?”

Good points. Some students are fine in high school, while some do better with the greater autonomy on a college campus. Columbia University research shows great value in high school students taking college-level courses at a college.

Greer understands that. His mother, Stacey, wrote: “We could not be happier to have so much freedom in the pursuit of an excellent education tailored specifically to our children. David has clearly made the most of his educational opportunities during his high school years.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.