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Gov. Steve Bullock, left, and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian

Gov. Steve Bullock, left, and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian announce Thursday at Helena High School the “One-Two-Free” initiative, which offers two free dual enrollment courses through the Montana University System to all eligible high school students. According to the Montana University System, the average student will save $1,190 through the program.

Montana students at any high school will be able to take two college credit courses through their high school for free, Montana officials announced Thursday. 

The decision removes a $50.50 per credit fee, following the lead of several colleges that have completely waived the fees in the last few years. 

Gov. Steve Bullock and Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian announced the move in Helena. 

“By eliminating the barrier of cost, we’re ensuring that all throughout our state students have exposure to the opportunities that college provides,” Bullock said in a press release. “Dual enrollment is making a difference for students, families and employers across our state by saving money, streamlining workforce preparation, and inspiring more students to pursue higher education.” 

Statewide, enrollment in the program has nearly tripled since 2012. Growth has been especially steep at City College, the community college branch of Montana State University Billings, where enrollment grew from about 300 in the 2012-13 school year to more than 1,000 during the 2017-18 school year. 

That school decided to waive the fee for courses in 2016, and has continued to ever since. Miles Community College followed suit, and Dawson Community College in Glendive announced that it would expand a pilot fee waiver program to dozens of eastern Montana high schools this year. 

Dawson County High principal Wade Murphy called the program, "a pretty sweet deal for our kids.”

Last year, when asked why more Montana University System schools didn't offer free dual enrollment, then-deputy Commissioner of Higher Education John Cech said "that's a good question."

The City College program began in part because the school received unexpected funding late in the year that effectively become a slush fund, which was used to replace any revenue lost from the fee waiver. 

The press release estimated that students taking two dual enrollment courses for free would save $1,190 on average compared to paying full tuition and fees. 

Colleges don't lose out on much revenue; the dual enrollment fee costs about $150 for a typical course. And students count toward colleges; enrollment-based funding, though it's not a huge impact. 

Evidence from Missoula County Public Schools seems to point to the fee being a barrier for students. 

The district offers dozens of dual credit courses. Almost 500 students took at least one dual credit course in fall 2016, but only 290 paid the fees. Without paying the fee, they couldn’t earn college credit.

Missoula County Superintendent Mark Thane called that "a travesty."

Adding courses

Schools have said that student interest is high in the classes, but their biggest challenge is getting teachers qualified to teach the courses. 

Murphy said that his school saw several teachers qualified to teach dual enrollment courses retire last school year. 

"That limits a little bit of what we can do,” he said. 

Across the state, rural schools tend to struggle more to offer dual enrollment courses. But more than 90 schools offer at least one course, according to the press release, and some courses are available through the Montana Digital Academy, the state's online platform available to students across the state. 

Teachers need to have a master's degree and meet a university's requirements for teaching dual credit — at least an additional nine graduate-level subject area credits. 

Montana State University Billings received a grant to help teachers meet the 9-credit requirement in writing, art and political science at a reduced cost. The university has targeted teachers in rural districts. 

Offerings sometimes compete with other college-credit options, especially Advanced Placement courses. Students have to pass a rigorous year-end test to earn those credits, but they're more likely to be accepted by universities outside Montana. 

Dual enrollment credits are only guaranteed in-state, but students are judged on their body of work over the entire course, not one test. It's often pitched as a way for students who aren't sold on attending college as a way to sample higher education before committing. 

In Glendive, dual enrollment offerings actually expanded this year: The high school will offer Geology, Intro to Ag, Welding, Child Development and six different music courses. 

There are more music offerings than last year and Geology, Ag and Welding are new, but the school lost an art and an English course. 

Murphy said that even before the fee waiver, the school pushed kids to consider dual enrollment as a cost-effective option. 

“It’s a no brainer, man," he said. "Especially if you’re going to stay in state.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.