The lead expert in Thursday’s joint House and Senate higher education committee hearing was new to the process of testifying in a state committee process. It showed. Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, repeatedly had to make reference to traditional practices, like waiting to be recognized and directing her comments to the chair.
There was a reason for this. Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), said she was much more used to meetings with authorities in Washington, D.C., and generally outside of committee hearing rooms.
“This is highly unusual for us,” she said. “We meet with the federal government. We don’t meet with state legislators. But the passion in Minnesota made it easy for us to want to come here and talk with you.”
The desire for a discussion, or debate, went both ways. At issue is a move from HLC to impose stricter rules on teacher qualifications for concurrent enrollment options in high schools. Under new guidelines from HLC, teachers would need at least a master’s degree, with a minimum of 18 graduate-level credits in the course they teach, in order for high school students to receive college credits.
Lawmakers from both sides expressed doubt that the new guidelines are necessary, citing evidence that Minnesota’s concurrent enrollment programs, commonly referred to as PSEO — for “post-secondary enrollment options” — are already effective.
Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, agreed that there had been “discrepancies” in how Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) institutions had overseen PSEO programs, but said those issues would be addressed through recent legislation, while the HCL changes would have a more sweeping effect.
“I see this as being way back to the 50s, ’60s college model,” Clausen said.
Hue Nguyen, assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Education, said the agency had “some concerns” that the rules could limit local districts’ ability to launch programs, as they search for qualified educators.
Concurrent enrollment has continued to rise year-to-year, Nguyen said, with nearly 300 districts teaching more than 24,000 students in 2014. Concurrent enrollment access is also an “equity issue,” according to Nguyen, who said participation by minority students had risen 75 percent over a six-year period.
Gellman-Danley said she was interested to hear input from lawmakers and teachers, but pushed back when some challenged the need to upgrade the state’s standards.
“Let’s be in honest, in this country, and therefore in Minnesota, on assessments and outcomes, we’re not there yet,” Gellman-Danley said. She added, of students who take PSEO but cannot afford higher education: “We don’t feel they should get any less of an education than they would in college.”
Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, was mostly guarded in his comments on Thursday but opened up a bit in a constituent message issued by his office on Friday morning. Nornes, chair of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, wrote that the HLC’s new order amounts to “overreach,” and said he and other lawmakers are considering their options on how to block the rule.
“The big question,” Nornes wrote, “is what do we do with a board that … holds the accreditation hammer over the heads of schools as it demands compliance?”
Several other lawmakers, especially those with MNSCU colleges in their districts, did wonder aloud Thursday about the prospect of schools losing accreditation. The evaluation of schools to comply with the new rule will not even begin until September 2017, Gellman-Danley said, and schools would then have two years to reach compliance. Institutions can take a number of paths to meet compliance, and those that are simply eliminating some programs or teachers were doing so on their own.
Gellman-Danley added that no institution had ever lost accreditation over failures within a single subject issue. “Our job is not to close institutions,” she said.