Sheliyah Mitchell has already made her career choice. Heart problems run in her family, so she wants to work as a cardio-thoracic surgeon. The Edison High School senior is working toward her goal by taking Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) classes at North Hennepin Junior College. She is among a growing number of students of color who are taking advantage of the program.
The PSEO program was enacted by the Minnesota Legislature in 1985. It allows high school students to take college courses while attending high school and receive credit for them. Tuition, fees and books for PSEO students who earn dual credits are paid by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to the colleges and universities in which PSEO students are enrolled. Since 1985, 200,000 teenagers have participated in the program.
Students have to demonstrate they’re college-ready. The college or university makes the decision on whether to accept them. According to the Minnesota State website,
• High school seniors must be in the upper one-half of their class or score at or above the 50th percentile on the ACT or SAT.
• Juniors must be in the upper one-third of their class or score at or above the 70th percentile on a test, such as the ACT or SAT.
• Sophomores may enroll in a career or technical education course at a Minnesota State college or university if they have attained a passing score or met the 8th grade standard on the 8th grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment in reading and meet other course prerequisites or course enrollment standards established by the college. These standards include but are not limited to assessment test scores, program admission or other requirements.
MDE has found PSEO classes help students narrow the “achievement gap” for students of color. In a report for the 2012-2013 academic year, the agency reported a graduation rate of 57.8% for all African American students. However, when students took three or more continuing education courses, the graduation rate rose to 67.4%. When Black students took one or more PSEO courses, the graduation rate accelerated to 88.2%.
Similar results were seen for Native American students, who traditionally lag far behind white students when it comes to completing high school. The overall graduation rate in 2013 was 49%. It climbed to 74.6% when students took 240 hours of continuing education classes. When Native American students were concurrently enrolled in high school and PSEO classes, the graduation gap shrunk to just a little over 10%.
Trade schools, too
John Schroeder serves on the board of People for PSEO, a non-profit organization that advocates advanced educational opportunities for not only college-bound students, but post-secondary technical education as well. Most of the staff are young, former PSEO students. A life-long education advocate, Schroeder said PSEO has effectively helped students who come from low-income homes where parents may not have been involved in their child’s education. “These kids get slotted by the school system, and learn to believe that they are not going anywhere,” he said.
Post-secondary education can change that scenario. “You don’t have to go to college,” said Schroeder. “There are so many options in PSEO, including vocational technical training.” Among schools offering PSEO programs are the Dunwoody Institute and the state technical colleges.
The Finishing Trades Institute in Little Canada is one of the trade schools offering PSEO. Organized by the finishing unions – carpenters, window installers and others – they offer hands-on training as well as help with tuition and tools and uniforms, if needed. Students can receive up to nine college credits for their work. Their apprenticeship program boasts an 80% job placement rate.
If anything, the PSEO program suffers from a lack of awareness among students. Schroeder said some high school administrators are resistant to informing students about the program. Public and charter schools receive state aid based on their student population. When a student takes PSEO classes, some of that aid is diverted to the college, university or tech school they attend. “It saves the state thousands of dollars,” he said, “but it takes money away from the local school.”
He said he had heard of one instance where a high school principal had refused to let a senior attend the spring prom because he was enrolled in PSEO classes.
He said People for PSEO encourages schools to promote the program as a reason to attend a certain school: “We can help you save college expenses while you’re in high school.”
Mitchell said her counselor at Edison, Kris Baumgartner, persuaded her to check into PSEO classes.
Jonah Martinez, a St. Anthony High School graduate, serves on the People for PSEO board with Schroeder. He signed up for PSEO courses to save money. He completed two years’ college work at the University of Minnesota while in high school. He also found courses in economics and finance that suited his interests that weren’t offered at SAVHS. He’s majoring in those two subjects at the U, with a minor in statistics. He plans to apply for law school after he receives his degree and work in the area of financial regulations.
He said he was surprised at the access he had to professors at the U, and how friendly they were when he stopped by for a chat. He began working for People for PSEO because they’re “helping to break the cycles of poverty and reduce student debt.”
Monique Walker, a senior at St. Anthony, said her school doesn’t offer a lot of advanced placement classes. She’s taken writing and sociology classes at the U, “getting ahead on college credits.” PSEO classes have given her more than a leg up on college credits. She’s received offers of full-ride scholarships to Emory and Cornell Universities. “Colleges like to see U of M-level work,” she said. She plans a pre-med biology major.
Mitchell is in the International Baccalaureate program at Edison, but she feels PSEO will benefit her more “in the long run.” She said, “I’ve enjoyed studying psychology and human relations,” she said. Like Walker, she’ll major in biology. She just has to decide on the school. At present, she’s leaning toward Georgia State or Clark Atlanta.
Walker recommends taking classes to other PSEO students. “You feel affirmed,” she said.
Below: Jonah Martinez, Monique Walker, and Sheliyah Mitchell