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Dual enrollment, CTE classes may be at risk / August 02, 2017
Proposed changes in the way Virginia community colleges would charge for classes delivered on the high school campus could jeopardize Mecklenburg County’s career and technical education and dual enrollment programs.

While still under discussion, the new cost-share arrangement between the community college system and local school divisions would have the effect of shifting the expense of CTE and dual enrollment courses onto families that have turned to the programs as an alternative to college.

In Mecklenburg County, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols doesn’t believe that the county school division has the resources to absorb a cost hike from the community college system.

“With all the financial issues we have” — with the construction of a new high school-middle school complex and planned facility upgrades at elementary schools — “we won’t be able to pay for dual enrollment for our students” if the changes are implemented, said Nichols. “Right now, it’s a wash, but if that changes than we could have a problem.”

School divisions in Southside Virginia rely heavily on community colleges to provide high-end academic offerings and career and technical training. Community college coursework offered in high school has proven popular with area high school students: among the most recent batch of Mecklenburg County graduates at Bluestone and Park View, 437 took dual enrollment classes offered through Southside Virginia Community College.

Of that number, 145 earned either an associate’s degree or an industry certification or career studies certificate by the time they graduated from high school.

At Halifax County High School in South Boston, nearly one-half of the student body — 850 students on average — took dual enrollment courses in the most recent school year.

Nichols said Mecklenburg County might be compelled to end dual enrollment altogether once the current cohort of juniors and seniors graduates.

Incoming eleventh and twelfth graders would be allowed to complete their dual enrollment studies, which can culminate in a two-year community college associate’s degree, but “I am not comfortable with giving hope to ninth, tenth, or rising eighth graders that this program will be offered to them,” he said.

While the community college system provides both career and technical education (CTE) and dual enrollment coursework in high school, the programs are structured differently, and the potential impact of the changes would unfold in different ways.

Dual enrollment classes are mostly taught within the high school setting, usually by the school division’s own teachers who meet the qualifications for teachers set by the Community College – they must hold a master’s degree and earned at least 18 credit hours in the content area they teach.

Students who earn their associate’s degrees while still in high school, on par with other community college graduates, can enter Virginia public colleges and universities with, depending on the school, all or some of their credits intact, potentially shortening the time to completion of a four-year degree.

Community college tuition costs about $134 per credit hour for in-state students, but at the high school level, dual enrollment courses are offered for free — with the expenses incurred by community colleges offset by local school divisions that provide the teaching labor and facilities.

This matching arrangement could change if, as expected, a statewide higher education task force that is examining the issue recommends passing on more of the costs to local school districts for dual enrollment.

Dr. Alfred “Al” Roberts, president of Southside Virginia Community College, said the general sentiment among task force members is that some expenses with dual enrollment programs fall disproportionately on the community colleges system. These costs — tied to registration, placement testing, and program management, among other things — should be borne to a greater extent by local high schools.

In contrast to dual enrollment, community college CTE courses are typically offered outside of the high school setting. Students travel to community college campuses and other higher education locations to take courses in career fields such as nursing, welding, computer programming, emergency medical services and physical therapy. Through such courses, high school students can earn career credentials that are valued in the workplace.

In Mecklenburg County, the school division pays the full tuition for students to take these community college CTE courses. (MCPS offers its own instruction in fields such as auto mechanics and building trades.) However, Nichols suggested that the county division may have to scale back its commitment to pick up these community college tuition costs if MCPS is hit with higher costs for instruction.

In conversations with area school superintendents, Roberts conceded that SVCC has received pushback on the proposed changes. Roberts said a majority of superintendents have told him that even a 10 percent fluctuation in costs would be significant, and school divisions might be forced to pass on the added expense to parents or discontinue programs entirely.

The students who would be hurt most tend to come from low-income families, Roberts said, adding that it is contrary to the mission of Virginia community colleges to limit access to higher education.

Since job credentialing programs fall under the umbrella of dual enrollment, Nichols said he is wrestling with how to cover the costs and promote access for county high school students since most high-level CTE programs can’t be provided without the help of community colleges.

The issue of tuition costs aside, Nichols said MCPS and other school divisions that offer dual enrollment are faced with a dearth of qualified teachers. The community college system requires that dual enrollment teachers possess a master’s degree with 18 credit hours in the content area they teach. In the 1990s, he said, several teachers in Mecklenburg County were given the opportunity to earn their master’s degrees from college professors brought in from Cambridge, Mass. These teachers are now largely retiring, said Nichols. Most new teachers either do not have a master’s degree or lack the 18 content area credit hours required to teach dual enrollment, he said.

In Nichols’ view, diminishing access to dual enrollment opens the door for the county to offer more Advanced Placement (AP) classes. “I always been of the opinion that students get a higher level of rigor from AP than from dual enrollment,” said Nichols, who before taking the job as Mecklenburg school superintendent led a grant-funded, statewide program to spread AP programs to low-income school divisions around Virginia.

Nichols said one reason AP classes offer more academic rigor is that the curriculum is set by the College Board. “When it comes to college acceptance, rigor is more important than GPA,” he said.

Another advantage associated with the AP program, according to Nichols, is that high AP exam scores are positively related to college grades. (AP tests are graded on a 1 to 5 scale.) A student who earns a qualifying 4 or 5 score on an AP exam has demonstrated his or her ability to complete college level coursework. Studies show that AP students exempted from introductory courses perform as well or better in the subsequent course than those who complete introductory courses while in college. Students enrolled in colleges and universities who take AP classes in high school often have a higher first-year GPA and a higher graduation rate than fellow college students, according to studies.

This fall, MCPS will begin offering AP classes on a limited basis. AP Statistics will be made available to seniors. English grammar and composition and U.S. history will transition from dual enrollment to AP classes. Nichols said he hopes to add AP government and British literature to the offerings at Bluestone and Park View.

Nichols acknowledges that even if MCPS moves away from the dual enrollment associates degree program, the school division will need to work with SVCC to continue to provide CTE programs. The school division lacks the finances and the space to develop industry certification-level programs that can involve expensive equipment such as CNC and welding gear.

Christie Hales, communication and marketing specialist with Southside Virginia Community College, noted that some of the most popular CTE courses offered to Bluestone and Park View students require that they travel off-campus. These courses include Intro to Computer Applications and Concepts, Advanced Computer Applications, Multimedia Software, Intro to Game Design & Development, Health Care Technician, Intro to Welding, Arc Welding I, and Gas Metal Arc Welding.

Building a skilled workforce is one of the most important issues facing the country, Roberts said, and for his part he continues to look at ways SVCC can fulfill that need. To the extent that community college courses fit with a high school CTE program, all the better, he added.

For instance, at the new Center for Information Technology Excellence, SVCC has created a training lab that replicates the work environment of large data centers such as Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. Starting this fall, the lab will offer both high school dual enrollment students and adult evening students the opportunity to train to work as IT technicians while earning both college credentials and industry credentials such as A+, Net+, Server +, and Security +.

With the opening of the new hospital in South Hill, Roberts said there is an increased need for qualified physical therapy assistants, and SVCC is developing a credentialing program in that area.

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