New state scholarship program costs school district

By Mark Bell - For the Enterprise

A statewide effort to increase opportunities high school students have for college-level courses has left Harlan County and other local school districts with a choice to either cut back or pay up.

This year, in order to maintain the same level of dual credit course offerings they have been providing to students since Harlan County High School opened, the board of education has chosen to pay.

Changes in the way these courses are now to be funded at high schools across Kentucky will, for this year at least, require some public school districts to come up with enough money to cover the tuition fees to be charged by institutions of higher education.

Two months ago, Gov. Matt Bevin announced the new Kentucky Dual Credit Scholarship to be paid for by state lottery proceeds. His order provided funds to cover two such courses for high school seniors. Bevin’s stated goal was for Kentucky’s secondary students to graduate with at least nine postsecondary, or college-level, credit hours.

Since the governor’s announcement, the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), along with other institutions of higher education in the state, have been working through the financial details.

According to Erin Klarer, spokesperson for KHEAA’s executive director, the governor’s executive order capped the cost for these college classes at $156 each.

Anything beyond that program framework being offered to high school students will now incur added costs to the public school districts that make them available.

Harlan County’s situation, and those like it now being uncovered around the state, appears to be the result of some unintended consequences.

“It certainly was not anyone’s intent to create another unfunded mandate on local school districts,” said Woody Maglinger, executive director of communications for the Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet which crafted Bevin’s plan.

“We certainly don’t want school districts to have any extra expense because of this,” he added.

But in establishing a new scholarship program applicable to the entire state where some school districts may have never had dual credit programs, any financial impact this change may have created to existing local agreements between school districts and higher education was entirely unintentional, Maglinger said.

In Harlan County’s case, this new approach supplants a somewhat unique and separate agreement the school district had with Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College since the opening of the consolidated high school.

For the district to continue to offer future students the same opportunity for college classes as it has to those in the past, it appears it’s going to cost the system over $30,000 this year.

On the other hand, to offer a dual credit program that still gives students the opportunity to receive college classes at no extra cost to the school system, the Harlan County district would have to drastically cut back on the number of courses students could take, said Brent Roark, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

“I just don’t see us ever doing that,” he added.

However, Harlan County is not alone in dealing with this issue. Henry County Schools Superintendent Tim Abrams, whose district works with Morehead State University, said while the opportunities provided to students through this new scholarship are outstanding, “the timing of it hasn’t allowed local districts to adapt before the start of the school year.”

Approximately 40 percent of his students take dual credit courses, Abrams said, so the added cost is not insignificant. “While I applaud the governor and all the folks who put this together, it’s just that for the time being everybody (with established dual credit programs) is going to be in the same boat,” Abrams added.

Like Harlan County, the Henry County district also has its own accredited teachers to provide these classes, which was the key reason previous tuition fees could be waived, Abrams said.

But because of the changes brought about by the new agreement using state funding and their choice to maintain the same level of available course work, Harlan County school administrators estimate their additional cost this year to be over $31,000 and could be as high as $40,000 by the time the year is through.

Because these classes will actually be paid out as reimbursements to the district and also tied to student performance in them, the actual costs cannot be known until the end of the year, education officials say.

According to Roark, dual credit classes are now capped at four per student per year. New state funding covers the cost for two of those, and only for seniors. The community college system has agreed to provide scholarship funding so that each junior can take one dual credit course tuition free.

At Harlan County, some students have been engaged in college-level course work at a much higher volume. Going forward, qualified students will still be able to graduate high school with as many as 24 college credit hours completed, Roark said.

KCTCS leaders report their system has been losing money on the dual credit program for years. Over a decade’s worth of legislative and executive funding cuts have eroded that system’s ability to absorb those costs, they say.

For example, last year KCTCS had a total of 8,000 students across the state and the expenses for that led to “a multi-million dollar loss,” according to Dr. Paul Blankenship, the KCTCS Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

The new agreement, as crafted by KCTCS leadership in Versailles before being disseminated across the state, will maintain the opportunity for high school students to receive higher education, said Dr. Rhonda Tracy, KCTCS Chancellor.

“Regardless of how we do it, we are losing money,” she said. “We are doing the best we can to meet the needs of students, be good stewards of the resources of this institution and the Commonwealth, and fulfill the spirit and letter of the (governor’s) executive order.”

KCTCS’s 16 colleges retain the option to negotiate locally in other ways that would assist the public school systems they partner with, but the current situation does not provide a realistic way they can continue to waive costs that are above those covered by the available scholarships, she added.

In addition to staffing and facilities which may be provided by the public schools, Blankenship noted the community colleges provide the coordinators to develop coursework consistent with their standards. They perform site visits to public schools and evaluate performance according to accredited standards.

The college also absorbs their share of costs for time allotted on all these functions and administrative oversight for all other related issues such as maintaining grades and reports, as well as managing the instructional software and associated technology with the “Blackboard” and “PeopleSoft” systems that make modern college coursework possible, Blankenship said.

“On a yearly basis, all these things are very expensive for us to operate,” Blankenship said. “We are responsible for making sure the students in our system all over the state are being well-served.”

Originally, KCTCS anticipated a substantial number of dual credit students would continue their education at the community college system. It was one of the key motivations in their willingness to provide the program.

However history has not proved that assumption to be true, with less than one-third or less of participating high school graduates choosing KCTCS for their next level of education.

For Harlan County, Roark said traditionally between a quarter and a third of juniors and seniors have taken at least one dual credit course per year, which amounts to between 150-180 of HCHS’s upper classmen.

Harlan County’s participation remains low as a percentage when compared to a district like Henry County partly due to additional requirements, one of which is that HCHS students must first meet ACT benchmarks before they are allowed to enroll in dual credit classes.

Under their prior local agreement, Southeast KCTCS limited the costs to a $50 registration fee per student at HCHS no matter how many technical training courses the student took. Blankenship said the colleges did collect minimal tuition fees for general education courses. In both cases there was no major impact on the local school district’s budget.

During last month’s meeting of the local board of education, it was determined that by continuing to work through Southeast KCTCS as they always have, the result of this new scholarship program would amount to $52 per student per class for their share of the tuition costs.

Collecting the amount from students and/or families would likely prove impossible, district officials say. Klarer indicated the governor’s order would preclude any student from paying tuition fees. Those would have to come from the school district, she said, or be waived by their college or university partner.

Although the additional cost could total more than the equivalent of a full-time teacher, the board of education agreed to add the expense to their upcoming year’s budget in order to maintain the higher education opportunities the dual credit program provides to its students.

By Mark Bell

For the Enterprise

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