Master’s requirement threatens equity in dual enrollment access


\"pencilscaleruler2\"As a kindergartener, Natalie Resch kept a curious eye on her sisters—then in third and fourth grade—and their more advanced schoolwork. Now a senior at Windom Area High School in Minnesota, Natalie has had a unique opportunity to keep up with them. Through her school’s dual-enrollment program, College in the Schools, Natalie’s teachers have helped her earn 31 college credits, all without leaving Windom’s campus. But the program is in jeopardy.

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which accredits colleges and universities in 19 states across the West and Midwest, recently ruled that in order to teach a dual-enrollment course to high school students teachers must hold a master’s degree. Further, if that degree is not in the subject that they teach, they must have at least eighteen graduate-level course credits in that area. Unfortunately, of Windom’s seven current dual-enrollment teachers, only one would qualify to continue teaching college-level courses under the ruling, and the school would only be able to provide eight of the 43 credits it currently offers.

The HLC’s ruling is worrying news not only for Windom students but for high school students across HLC’s member states—particularly low-income and rural-area students who could benefit from dual enrollment programs the most. According to the HLC, 48 percent of dual-enrollment educators in the states they oversee do not currently meet the new requirement, which will take effect in fall of 2017. District and school administrators have come forward to voice concern that they will have to make significant cuts to their programs when the ruling takes effect. Taking on the additional financial and time commitment of a master’s degree in addition to a full-time teaching position, they argue, represents a significant burden to educators. Administrators worry that their dual-enrollment teachers will not be willing or able to pursue this option, and they will ultimately lose a significant portion of their qualified teaching staff.

Of course what impacts educators ultimately impacts students, too, and this is where the ruling is most concerning, as it altogether ignores the anecdotal and empirical evidence on dual enrollment programs’ positive effects. At a recent hearing in response to the ruling, Natalie and several of her current and former Windom classmates testified before the Minnesota Legislature’s Joint Higher Education Committee regarding their dual enrollment experience. They spoke passionately about the many benefits they had accrued from participating in College in the Schools: taking stimulating, rigorous courses, saving on college tuition, and having the opportunity to prepare for college while still fully participating in high school.

A significant body of research shows that high schoolers who earn dual credit are more likely to enroll in college, earn good grades, and graduate on time (see our recent post on this here). Dual enrollment provides an especially big boost to poor students, who otherwise tend to enroll, thrive, and graduate from college at a much lower rate than their wealthier peers. Compared to dual-enrollment students from wealthy families, the effect for poor students on postsecondary GPA, graduation, and later employment is much greater. Remarkably, dual-enrollment students living in poverty actually graduate from college at a higher rate than wealthy students who do not take college credits in high school.

Knowing the profound impact that dual-enrollment classes have on students who face systematic disadvantage in pursuing college degrees, the Community College Research Center has called repeatedly for policymakers to expand these opportunities to the students who need them most. Unfortunately, the HLC ruling will do just the opposite. Rather than give more low-income students these horizon-expanding opportunities, it will remove many of the existing options that school systems have put in place to help them succeed.

The new requirement may have an especially adverse impact on students in rural schools. Though data does not exist for all affected states, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators has shared data indicating that rural schools in their state will be the most adversely affected by the HLC’s ruling. Of the 193 dual-enrollment teachers across 31 rural Minnesota districts, only 33 would qualify to continue teaching in Fall 2017. This is especially unfortunate given that students in rural schools, particularly those who serve primarily low-income students, are already significantly less likely to enroll and graduate from college. Faced with cuts to their dual enrollment programs, rural schools have one less tool with which to help students fight this trend.

In response to concerns,  the HLC says that the ruling merely codifies what was already an implicit expectation for dual-enrollment programs and will ensure that dual-enrollment options are controlled for quality as they proliferate. The ruling simply makes that expectation explicit by requiring that a high school teacher instructing a college-level course have a master’s degree in the course content. And the expectation sounds intuitive: teachers would be more effective in teaching a college-level subject if they held advanced credentials demonstrating expertise in that subject.

But evidence suggests that master’s degrees in education and even in specific subject areas are not reliable proxies for a teacher’s ability to help students learn. Further research is necessary to establish conclusively whether subject-area degrees influence teacher effectiveness in those subjects. For instance, some research shows that teachers who hold a master’s degree in math or science can positively influence student achievement in those subjects at the high school level, while more recent, though non-generalizable, research suggests the opposite.

What’s more, analogous teachers of college-level Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses are not required to hold such credentials. Similar to dual-credit programs, both AP and IB programs offer students end-of-course examinations that can lead to college credit and/or higher course placement. The primary difference is that AP and IB courses are more often offered in affluent schools, and/or for more traditionally college-bound students, than are dual enrollment programs. In addition to its adverse effects on educators and students, the HLC ruling requires states to create policies that are inconsistent at best, and discriminatory at worst, when it comes to expectations for teachers of courses that can bestow college credit.

And there is already evidence to suggest that dual enrollment programs work well in their current form: the research cited earlier regarding the effectiveness of dual enrollment programs comes from states that do not explicitly require master’s degrees (with the exception of Oregon). If HLC’s goal is to ensure that dual-enrollment programs are high-quality, it should explore other options besides requiring teachers to obtain—and incentivizing districts to continue rewarding—costly master’s degrees that have little evidence of making teachers more effective. For instance, HLC could require teacher professional development, classroom observation, and/or mentorship specific to the course subject via the partnering higher education institution.

Given the widespread and well-documented success of dual enrollment programs, it is not clear why the Higher Learning Commission chose this moment to change requirements for teachers. It is clear, however, that the Commission’s ruling will impact states’ ability to provide access to dual-enrollment for all students, and particularly for those who benefit from it most: students in rural schools and those living in poverty. Testifying on behalf of Windom Area School District, Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt spoke to this issue: “We’re trying to close…that opportunity gap…While I may understand where Higher Learning Commission is coming from…what they’re doing is holding back the possibility for our students.”