Minnesota’s program that lets high school students earn college credit is underused

PSEO has been in the news, but for the wrong reasons

July 17, 2023 6:00 am

Minnesota’s PSEO program lets students in grades 10-12 earn college credits that also count towards their high school graduation requirements. Courtesy photo.

As a recent college graduate, I am excited that the Minnesota Legislature just made college free for families who earn less than $80,000 per year. But there’s another way we can make college affordable for all families and increase Minnesota’s highly educated workforce.

Did you know that we’ve offered free college credits to students since 1985? If you didn’t, then you’re not alone. Across the state, our families face a great deal of confusion and missed opportunities to earn free college credits through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO program. This program helps not just students, but the entire state.

The PSEO program has recently received some unfortunate publicity over litigation related to the eligibility of certain religious colleges in the program, but let’s set that aside and talk about the program’s benefits and what we can do to make it even better.

To summarize how it works: Minnesota’s PSEO program lets students in grades 10-12 earn college credits that also count towards their high school graduation requirements. PSEO students can take college classes online or in person, part time or full time, at almost any two- or four-year college in the state (including technical and trade schools). Tuition, books, and other class materials? All free.

In my experience, PSEO offers several tangible benefits over more popular college credit programs such as Advanced Placement or College in the Schools. The biggest advantage is that students — especially those from smaller high schools — aren’t constrained by the limited number of classes and topics that the high school offers. I earned 57 college credits through PSEO, but my rural high school didn’t have any AP classes and only about 30 credits worth of CIS classes. I know many other students who earned an Associate’s Degree before earning their high school diploma. The vast majority of high schools in Minnesota don’t offer this degree of financial opportunity.

Another benefit offered by PSEO is increased autonomy. Instead of sitting in the high school building for seven to eight hours, unable to leave, college offers students more scheduling flexibility for lunches, breaks between classes, and part-time jobs. This is appealing to students compared to the traditional high school schedule, but students in turn need to invest in their time-management skills.

Finally, while other dual-credit programs offer students the opportunity to take advanced coursework, those programs are not a substitute for experiencing the college environment. As a PSEO student, I learned how to navigate campus, interact with college professors, improve my time management skills, and access college-level internships. These skills prepared me for college.

Given these benefits, and despite the fact that not every high school student is ready for college, I have always been surprised that more families don’t make even partial use of the PSEO program.

What’s happening here? And what fixes can we make to help more Minnesota high schoolers take advantage of these great benefits?

The first factor influencing our low PSEO participation has to do with money — what else? State education funding follows each student, so PSEO students carry their state-allocated revenue with them to the college campus. From the perspective of local school districts, if too many students enroll in PSEO, then budgets will be cut and teachers will lose their jobs. This leads to counselors gatekeeping PSEO, schools withholding information, and grade manipulation wherein students are rewarded with higher GPAs for choosing the dual-credit programs that keep their dollars inside the school building. Not all schools do this, but some certainly do.

recent report from the College in High School Alliance also identified this issue: “[The PSEO funding formula] can manifest itself in high schools not making information freely available to students about PSEO (as required by statute), and erecting other artificial barriers to disincentivize participation by high school students and subsequent loss of funding to the high school.”

When adults fight over money, it is the students who get caught in the crossfire.

A second barrier is the lack of time and effort spent on improving PSEO law. For example, transportation to the college campus is a well-known and major hurdle to PSEO participation, especially for rural and low-income students. The state offers a transportation reimbursement fund of just 15 cents per mile (the same as it was back in 1985).

Or, consider the “college gag rule,” a provision in PSEO law that forbids higher education institutions from advertising the financial benefits of the PSEO program to students and parents.

I’m excited about the recently passed universal free meals — but PSEO students who spend most of their time on college campuses aren’t included.

Take these barriers and add the fact that there are only a few high schools that strongly champion this program, and you’ll start to get a full picture of why relatively few Minnesotans make full use of the PSEO program.

Is PSEO for every student? No. Is PSEO inherently better than other dual-credit programs? Of course not. However, there are undoubtedly students for whom PSEO is an excellent fit, but they are prevented from participation by a lack of awareness, school policies, or financial resources. I’ve heard from many of these students myself.

Our state needs to find the political willpower to solve these problems and, by doing so, continue our national leadership in providing an accessible and affordable higher education to all students.

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Zeke Jackson
Zeke Jackson

Zeke Jackson is a 2023 graduate from the University of Minnesota and serves as the executive director of People for PSEO, a nonprofit that promotes, defends and expands opportunities for high school students through the PSEO program.