Students at Park City High School were examining racial and gender gaps in congressional representation Wednesday morning — but just pointing them out wasn’t good enough.
“So what about equality and democracy?” government teacher Samantha Mayes asked.
The expectations are higher for Mayes’ students taking government as a dual-enrollment class, giving them a college credit to apply at any Montana university. Since they take the class through Montana State University Billings, they get a break from the per-credit fee, usually $151.50 for a class — already a steep discount from usual fees.
Students in dual-enrollment classes gave several reasons to take the classes — bagging a college credit, familiarity with a high school teacher — but one reason rose to the top.
“I didn’t have to pay for them,” said Billings West High School senior Danielle Forsyth.
MSUB has seen dual-enrollment classes boom since offering them for free, although students may have to pay for books. Enrollment jumped last year, and another 100-plus students took classes this fall compared to last fall, up to 354. In 2015, just 82 students had enrolled. MSUB offered the break last year when performance funding came in late, creating inadvertent financial flexibility. This year, it was built into the budget, and the school used a grant to create summer training programs for teachers, which helped result in new classes this fall.
Two other schools offer financial breaks, but campuses haven’t flocked to the concept. Since teachers need a specific certification to teach dual credit classes, offerings at smaller schools lag behind urban areas. And not all urban areas have seen major growth.
Missoula College awarded dual credits to 223 students in the spring and to 474 students the fall before that. Last month, the school reported only 280 had enrolled this fall. Some of the year-to-year drop could simply be timing, but officials are unsure. Many dual credit classes taught in Missoula high schools run the full year so students sometimes don’t apply for the college credits until the spring, and many are taught through other colleges. State and university officials will meet later this month to take a closer look at the numbers.
Dean Shannon O'Brien said, however, that “affordability is an issue.”
Missoula County Public Schools offers dozens of dual credit courses, and student interest appears strong. Almost 500 students took at least one dual credit course, but only 290 paid the fees in fall 2016. Without paying the fee, they couldn’t earn college credit.
"The fact that only 300 paid the fee after they finished the application process says to me there's a financial hurdle," Superintendent Mark Thane said at a school board meeting last year. "If they're taking the courses but won't get credit, that's a travesty."
Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education John Cech called the expansion of dual credit programs “one of the highest priorities of our office,” championing free-tuition programs in Billings, Miles City and Kalispell. Students who complete at least one dual-credit course are better prepared for college, earn higher freshman GPAs, take more credits their first year, are less likely to drop out, earn degrees quicker and save money on tuition down the road.
They also are more likely than other Montana students to attend a Montana college after graduating high school, although it’s unclear if dual credit drives college choice or if students already planned on staying in Montana.
With all the benefits, why aren’t tuition waivers more widespread?
“That’s a very good question,” Cech said.
MSUB’s tuition waiver program took off with backing from Gov. Steve Bullock, but it was paid for by performance funding arriving late to the university after student retention figures gave funding a boost. With the money unbudgeted, it was easier to apply to special projects. After a spike in dual enrollment, MSUB made the program part of this year’s budget.
“Obviously, the campuses, they need to prioritize their own budgets,” Cech said. “There are some other campuses having discussions.”
He declined to say which ones, but said “probably most” are giving it some thought in the context of larger budget talks as a way to “make connections with more students.”
He also said the University System wants to review data from the MSUB program after a few more years to better understand what motivates student decisions and how successful they are once they reach a Montana campus. Maybe then, the commissioner of higher education could make a pitch for the Legislature to partner with them to fund a statewide program, he said.
Cech said campus costs of offering dual-enrollment programs include, among others:
- Hiring a dual-enrollment coordinator for each campus.
- The time of support staff who process applications and payments.
- Faculty liaisons who coordinate with high school teachers on curriculum.
- Travel to schools for student information sessions.
High schools have their own challenges for offering dual-enrollment classes.
This is Mayes’ first year teaching dual credit, and it’s the only in-house opportunity for Park City High students to earn college credit.
“Our class sizes are small enough that we can only offer so many electives,” said Mayes, the school's only social studies teacher. “If we had the ability to offer more higher-level classes, I know that we could fill them to make them efficient.”
Mayes already has a master’s degree, but it didn’t meet MSUB's subject area requirements for dual-enrollment certification. The university offered a grant-funded program this summer free to teachers, and Mayes took advantage.
To swing the dual-enrollment offering, she combines the class with a regular government class and differentiates instruction, hitting more advanced topics with the college-credit students. It’s not the easiest set-up, but Mayes makes it work.
Some Park City students take advanced options through Digital Academy, Montana’s online coursework program, but they said Mayes’ class offered more support. They also preferred it to the option of taking classes at a campus, with concerns about class sizes and unfamiliar professors.
“We’ve had (Mayes) before,” senior Brittany Frank said.
Columbus High School also added a dual-enrollment government class this fall, and Hardin plans to add dual-enrollment English classes this spring. But rural schools are still less likely to have teachers certified to teach advanced classes.
Schools with larger enrollments can usually fill a full section for advanced classes, and have several teachers in the same subject areas. But a larger district often comes with competing priorities.
At Billings West High School, Janna Lind already teaches an Advanced Placement social studies class. But she sought out dual-enrollment certification this summer.
“This is definitely going to a wider range of kids,” she said. Most are still college bound, but probably not going to an Ivy-league school.
That doesn’t mean they’re funneled straight to in-state schools. Forsyth, the West High senior, plans on studying kinesiology at Texas A&M. She’s already checked to make sure the credits transfer. Other students looking out of state said that while not every dual-enrollment credit transfers to the exact class they took, it usually transfers as a general elective.
And most students weren’t taking classes for a career focus. At Park City, students were just looking to bag an extra college credit — and some general knowledge.
“You can learn more and get more stuff out of the way for college,” said senior Jessica Medenhall.
“It helps us know more going through life … especially now that we’re voting,” said senior Haley Harper.
Officials from several schools and universities have argued that waiving fees for dual-enrollment courses makes students who aren't sold on college more likely to consider higher education. Students at Park City and West high schools were already planning on attending college, but they agreed that it would help them get in.
"It definitely looks good on a college application," Mendenhall said.