February 25, 2021

Free College in High School? I’m Doing It, but Too Few Students in MN Know They Can Too

By Beatrice Handlin

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I enrolled in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program at the University of Minnesota. After spending years dreading college’s looming costs and feeling bored at my high school, this program became immensely important to me. 

PSEO allows any 10th- to 12th-grade high school student to take courses at colleges and other post-secondary institutions throughout the state of Minnesota, free of cost for tuition, books, and lab fees. Tenth-grade students can take one career and technical education course their first semester, and as many as they want if they earn a C or better in the first course; 11th- and 12th-grade students can take as many credits as their chosen institution allows. Admission requirements vary between institutions.

This is an important opportunity for many students throughout Minnesota—but many students aren’t properly informed about PSEO by their schools.

Minnesota state law requires that school districts provide up-to-date information about PSEO to students by March 1 of each year or three weeks before the date a student registers for courses for the next school year, whichever comes first. The district must also provide information on the district or charter school’s website and in materials that are distributed to all students and their parents in grades 8-11 about the program, including information about enrollment requirements and the ability to earn college credit.

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) provides suggested text on its website, but it can be customized, as long as it contains the required important information.

Students aren’t finding an opportunity to go to college for free—when cost is often the biggest barrier to getting an undergraduate education.

However, most school districts within the state are not providing this information to their students. In a study by the Center for School Change, it was found that in a randomized sample of 100 school district websites, 97% did not provide updated information as of 2019. Some even provided false information to students, such as that PSEO students were not allowed to participate in school activities. This means students aren’t finding an opportunity to go to college for free—when cost is often the biggest barrier to getting an undergraduate education.

By providing false or inaccurate information to students, many prospective PSEO students can lose out on a valuable opportunity.

For example, my own high school—White Bear Lake Area High School—does not provide accurate information on its website. Of the many issues, it does not provide information on the 10th-grade option for PSEO, a statement saying that students can still participate in activities at their high school, or reassurance that students can take PSEO courses online—all of which are outlined in the suggested text by the Minnesota Department of Education.

This example is only one of many, and it’s disappointing. Students shouldn’t have to go digging through numerous web pages when the information can be clearly outlined on any school website.

Not providing information to students is problematic; it prevents us from easily gaining access to knowledge about a program with clear educational benefits, limiting our educational opportunities.

PSEO is an important program to thousands of students in the state, and by hiding this opportunity—many students lose out on a worthwhile opportunity that could benefit them.

Besides the impact on a student’s goals, omitting key information about the program breaks Minnesota state law. Yet, very few school districts are willing to change, because there are few consequences.

I’m Student Coalition Chair for People for PSEO—an organization attempting to solve this problem—this year, we introduced legislation to the state legislature that could begin to solve this problem with to solutions:

  1. Permit post-secondary programs and colleges to provide information about the PSEO program to Minnesota students and families.
  2. Permit students to enroll in the PSEO program at any time if their school is not in compliance with mandated dissemination of information laws defined in statute 124D.09, subd. 7.

The first recommendation would allow post-secondary institutions to advertise information about PSEO to Students and Families throughout the state without restriction. This practice is currently not allowed by the “PSEO gag rule,” which was fully enacted at the end of 2020. By removing the gag rule, more students will be able to learn about the program because post-secondary programs will be able to provide information that their high school currently does not.

The second recommendation will allow students to enroll in the program at any time if their school is not in compliance with the statute surrounding the dissemination of information about PSEO.

Currently, students must notify their district of their intent to enroll in PSEO by May 30 of the current school year in order to assist the school district in budgeting for the next year. However, if the school is not providing accurate or updated information about PSEO, some students may not have access to the right information before May 30, and they lose out on their opportunity.

By allowing students to be able to notify their district of their intent to enroll in PSEO at any time if their school district is disseminating information, school districts will be incentivized to actually provide accurate information to their students and will give students more opportunities to enroll in the program than currently.

PSEO is an important program to thousands of students in the state, and by hiding this opportunity—many students lose out on a worthwhile opportunity that could benefit them.

On the brighter side, this week, MDE sent out a letter to all school districts about informing students about PSEO and will be holding a webinar for school districts. I hope we will begin to see major changes soon, but we still have a long way to go.

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