In schools across Minnesota, students have for decades been able to earn free college credit at the same time as high school credit from many of their own teachers.
But teaching requirements for the popular College in the Schools program will soon be enforced by a regional accreditor - requirements that are poised to devastate programs in the Northland's rural schools and in Duluth.
Starting next year, those who teach these classes must have a master's degree in the subject they teach or 18 graduate-level credits in that field, despite most of these teachers already having graduate education degrees.
"It would effectively kill the CITS program," said Stu Sorenson, a Duluth East High School teacher who has taught a college composition class for 13 years. "You're not going to find too many teachers who already have a master's degree to take the time and money to go get another one. Would I still teach my course? Yes. It just wouldn't have a college credit attached to it."
Steve Kauffman, public information officer for the regional accreditor - the Higher Learning Commission - reiterated that there is no requirement that a teacher with a master's degree earn another one. He said the requirements are only that a teacher hold a single master's degree, and that 18 hours of their graduate credits - whether part of that degree or in addition to it - be from courses in the subject they teach.
College credits that students can use to lower higher-education costs - sometimes by thousands of dollars - are the obvious allure to such classes. More than 27,000 Minnesota students took advantage of them during the 2014-15 school year, a 29 percent increase from 2009.
In the Duluth school district this year, more than 600 students are enrolled in these junior and senior-level classes, taught by 27 teachers. Twenty-five of those teachers are affected by the Higher Learning Commission's new requirements.
The edict - which has always been in place but will now be enforced - is meant to ensure students earning college credit in high school are getting the same access to qualified faculty as those in college, Kauffman said.
The commission is also offering the chance for partnering colleges and universities to apply for a five-year extension to meet the guidelines, put in place after outcry about the decision.
"If you're talking about 18 graduate credit hours, that is quite a bit of time for them to take those classes," Kauffman said, noting some states were offering grants and some institutions were helping teachers get the classes they need in cheaper and faster ways.
He said teachers could also meet new guidelines if they had "tested experience" - practical working knowledge beyond a classroom. The higher-education institutions partnering with school districts determine how the requirements are met.
Minnesota State, the system which Lake Superior College and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College belong to, has applied for the extension. The University of Minnesota Duluth plans to apply. The Duluth school district works with all three schools. If colleges and universities don't comply, they risk losing grant money and accreditation.
A valuable program
The CITS program is important, especially for the access it gives to students of color and poor students in rural areas, said Josh Collins, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.
"We would be very concerned if the impact of this would be to reduce the availability of these types of courses," he said, adding that the notion that a longtime seasoned teacher is no longer qualified to instruct "as of date X," is "problematic."
Whether it's practical for teachers to earn another master's degree or another 18 credits in the area they teach depends on where the teacher is, career-wise, said Paula Palmer, director of career and college success for the state education department.
Seasoned teachers, she said, might be retiring soon and would not recoup the cost of credits. Younger teachers may not have the resources.
Some colleges and universities, like UMD, already have regular professional development for the high school teachers they partner with, and they are, Sorenson said, "some of the most valuable workshops I go to."
Barbara Perushek is head of UMD's College in the Schools program. She testified at a joint Minnesota House and Senate higher-education committee hearing for the College in the Schools issue last year, a meeting that took four hours to hear everyone who wanted to speak. She said during the hearing that credits don't make the teachers successful.
"It's who the people are and what's happening in the classroom," Perushek said. "Many of us work with small rural districts that are hours away from our university. We need to keep that in mind when we are setting high, high standards and most of our teachers meet them."
At the hearing, the Higher Learning Commission said it had no research to support its demands, according to Joe Nathan, director for the Center for School Change in St. Paul. Nathan has worked to expand dual credit programs.
"This hugely frustrated a lot of educators. ... This (program) is one of the best ideas Minnesota has had," Nathan said, pointing to evidence from both state higher-education systems that shows the program helps more students enter and graduate from some form of college.
"It's very clear that making more use of CITS will help increase graduation rates and decrease college debt," he said. "So people are really upset."
Duluth school district kids earned 6,333 credits from 1,705 courses in 2014-15, according to the state's most recent report on rigorous courses.
The program is popular because it allows students to take classes without commuting to a nearby college campus; kids can stay for the full high school experience.
A concern for some schools and districts is the possible loss of students who might choose the college campus-based post-secondary enrollment option, meaning a loss of state funding or tuition.
"If our juniors and seniors all go PSEO, that kills us," said Todd Benson, head of school for Duluth's Lakeview Christian Academy. "For a small, private school like us, this is a big deal."
For rural school districts, PSEO isn't always an option. That means most students wouldn't have the opportunity for college credit-earning classes, like in the 600-student Moose Lake school district, about 30 miles from the nearest college campus.
"We are trying to scramble to figure out what to do," said Moose Lake superintendent Bob Indihar, who said his five teachers are qualified on their experience and merits to teach the college-level material.
Rural schools can try to band together and use telepresence, he said, which can be costly.
"The other option is we just don't do it and go back to teaching only high school classes," he said. "Kids will have to choose, and many kids in Moose Lake probably will not get the extra benefit of getting college credits before they are in college."
Benson said two of his teachers meet the requirement, but he has one teacher who teaches several CITS courses in different disciplines - a teacher who was "grandfathered in" by previous policy based on experience like many others.
"He would have to get three master's degrees," Benson said.
The school is slowly switching from CITS to advanced placement courses. If students want to earn college credit, they can pay to take a test at Lake Superior College that will show whether they know enough to be awarded the credits. But it's an extra step, Benson said.
A way forward
Pending the outcome of extension requests, the Duluth school district is revising its course catalog for next year - which is already in process - to indicate the issue and point out which courses may not be available, said Mike Cary, curriculum director.
Finding new, highly qualified people to teach one or two sections of a course would be difficult, he said, but he's working with higher education partners on possible solutions for affected teachers.
Along with the extension application, UMD is hammering out other pathways for the 40 or so teachers it works with, which include "establishing clear institutional criteria for prior experience" said Fernando Delgado, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. That would mean some teachers wouldn't need to go back to school. The other is exploring graduate credit-earning options, such as summer, online and evening programs for an 18-credit certification.
"In the end, we will find a way forward," Delgado said, because no one wants to see CITS programs go away.
Of the 52 teachers Lake Superior College works with, 20 of them wouldn't be able to teach after this year, said Jenna Trenberth, its CITS coordinator. Others have plans in place or have the credentials.
"We are working to try to mitigate the pain and communicate as clearly as we can given things are still moving," said Mike Seymour, vice president of academic and student affairs at LSC, noting that of the 1,500 kids the college serves through CITS, only 7 percent bring those credits to the school.
"We think it's the right thing to do," he said of the partnerships.
Seymour said the challenge will be bigger for smaller districts in offering opportunities.
"Teachers have to choose sometimes, unless they really want to go all in and (comply with the requirements)," he said.
That choice is what many education advocates and school leaders are afraid of.
The state has always been "ahead of the game" when it comes to advanced options for high school kids, said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.
For many rural kids, he said, the CITS credits were a driver to enter into higher education.
"It's really going to take away a tool for families and kids to get further education," Nolan said, "and frankly, it's going to set us backwards."
College in the Schools
Area schools and districts that offer college-credit earning College in the Schools courses include Duluth, Barnum, Carlton, Cloquet, Esko, Hermantown, Proctor, Wrenshall, Lake Superior, Lakeview Christian Academy, Moose Lake, Grand Rapids and Cook County.