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Local educators react to dual-credit issue

Lisa Dunlap Photo Dual-credit programs save students and families money and encourage more high school graduates to consider college, say Dr. John Madden, right, president of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, and Dr. Jeff Elwell, president of the ENMU system. They discussed the recently released Legislative Finance Committee report on dual-credit courses during the Wednesday meeting of the ENMU-R Community College Board. At far left is board member Mireya Trujillo. To her left is member Patricia Parsons.

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The scrutiny at the state level regarding the merits and the costs of dual-credit courses for New Mexico high school students has drawn the comments and involvement of local educators.

“We are obviously very supportive of this,” said Dr. Jeff Elwell, the new president of the Eastern New Mexico University system, which offers dual-credit courses through its three campuses in Portales, Roswell and Ruidoso.

Dual-credit courses allow high school students to take college-level courses and earn credits toward both their high school diplomas and a college degree, with state K12 public education and higher education funding picking up the costs.

Proponents say the courses save parents and students money on college tuition and prepare students to succeed at college academics. Critics say that the rising statewide costs—up $20 million over four years to $54.4 million in 2016—are not necessarily worth what students and the state are getting in return.

Elwell and other local higher education leaders say the merit in dual-credit courses isn’t about the money their institutions get. Rather, they contend that there are many benefits to students and families.

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An academic dean of New Mexico Military Institute also said he supports the concept of dual-credit courses, although the Institute does not participate in the state system because of its unique structure in which it offers both high school and college curricula in one institution.

The issue is involving Roswell educators, including Porter Cutrell, principal of Early College High School and University High School. He and others have participated in meetings where the future funding and nature of the dual-credit offerings have been discussed. Those talks are occurring among several state groups such as the Higher Education Department, the Public Education Department, the Legislative Finance Committee and the Dual-Credit Commission. Roswell’s Early College High School, as most other Early College public schools in the state, feature dual-credit courses as part of their curriculum.

State report questions costs, outcomes

A September report by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, an update of a 2012 evaluation, found that students participating in dual-credit programs completed college degrees or certificates in less time and required fewer remedial college courses.

The study found that the average degree-completion time for New Mexico university students who participated in dual-credit was 3.1 years compared to 5.3 years for students who did not take dual-credit courses. Shorter completion times were estimated to save students at New Mexico State University $6,700 in tuition and fees.

In addition, dual-credit students at three of the major New Mexico university systems required only 9 percent of their coursework to be remedial courses in 2016. That percentage was 31 percent for students who did not participate in dual-credit programs.

But the study said that available data also indicate that dual-credit students perform better academically than their peers and likely would have better educational outcomes even without taking dual-credit courses. Preliminary data also suggests that high school graduation rates and college completion rates are declining as more students participate in dual-credit programs, although the report cautions that still more information is needed to make definitive judgments.

According to the report, 20,213 New Mexico students in fiscal year 2016 took 48,068 dual-credit courses, compared to 12,263 students who took 27,751 courses in fiscal year 2011. That contributed to the rising costs, from $34.4 million in fiscal year 2012 to its current $54.4 million. Part of the student participation growth was related to changes in state law that have required students since 2013 to take either honor courses, distance learning courses, Advancement Placement courses or dual-credit courses to receive their high school diplomas.

The study also noted continuing issues concerning how dual-credit courses are funded.

The state now mandates that dual-credit courses be taught by instructors with master’s degrees. That has meant that more of the courses are offered by colleges and universities rather than high schools. Yet colleges are receiving a smaller proportion of funding for the courses than in previous years and are legally prohibited from collecting tuition from a public high school student, given that the state already funds public high schools.

As a result of the current funding structure, colleges received only $16.4 million of the $54.4 million in funds, or 30 percent, spent on dual-credit courses in fiscal year 2016. Yet in spring 2016, higher education institutions were teaching 72 percent of the courses, up from 55 percent in 2012.

Local educators praise dual-credit program

Eastern New Mexico University leaders in Portales and Roswell have taken issue with some aspects of the report.

Elwell said he was one of the university presidents sending a letter in response to the Legislative Finance Committee report.

He said that the data does not support the report’s conclusion that high-aptitude students are taking dual-credit courses, which can explain the good college outcomes. According to the report, the ACT score results indicate that there is only a 0.08 percent difference between New Mexico university students who participated in dual-credit and those who didn’t. The average ACT score of dual-credit students was 20.7. The average score for those who didn’t take the courses was 19.9.

“That is really not statistically significant,” Elwell said. “Some kids obviously have very high ACT and are very aggressive and ambitious, but a lot of kids are not. They are just normal kids.”

Both he and Dr. John Madden, president of ENMU-Roswell, said that they don’t offer the courses as money-makers. Madden, who estimated that dual-credit enrollment accounts for about 30 percent of its credit hours, said ENMU-R only gets about $6 a student for the courses. He and Elwell acknowledge that the courses can aid in institutional recruitment efforts, but they said the more important factor is that the courses can increase college attendance statewide.

“They are overlooking one factor completely,” said Elwell. “There are a lot of people who take dual credit who are thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m college material.’ And then they take a course and do well and it gives them confidence of, ‘Maybe I can go to college.’ We are obviously very supportive of this.”

Madden added that a report done by ENMU-R for the Legislative Finance Committee in 2012 found that the program saved Chaves County students and parents $1 million in one year, when considering what it would have cost students to take those courses at the University of New Mexico.

“This is Chaves County. This is not Bernalillo County,” said Madden. “So what is the savings to families across the state? It must be enormous.”

The LFC report raised some questions about the cost-savings. It said that about 50 percent of the dual-credit courses taken in 2016 were outside the core education curriculum for New Mexico universities and colleges, which means some credits might not transfer. It also said that many of the courses taken are not needed for degrees or certificates and recommended possible reform that would allow students to take only those courses that are expected to be relevant to their degrees.

Brig. Gen. Douglas Murray, the chief academic officer of the New Mexico Military Institute, said the state-funded system does not apply to the Institute, although he considers the program valuable.

“Dual credit is a great program,” he said. “It really meets the need.”

The Institute, which offers “a fully integrated” high school and accredited junior college program, does not accept students from other public high schools in its college courses, referring them to ENMU-R if they are interested in dual-credit. Its own cadets can take a college-level course for both college and high school credit and receive two transcripts. However, given that the cadets are taking the course at the same institution, the funding and credit-transfer issues affecting the state dual-credit program do not apply.

Murray said he attended meetings this week involving the Higher Education Department, which sought the perspectives of university and college officials.

The various groups involved are continuing to discuss possible reforms to address concerns and ensure that state funding will be utilized well. Some proposed changes, according to the recent report, include requiring dual-credit students to maintain a high school grade point average of 3.0 or above and a college-level GPA of 2.0 or above and to have a “next step” plan regarding postsecondary education.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.