‘Unconscionable’ mistakes by Minnesota Office of Higher Education

Joe Nathan
By Joe Nathan
ECM Columnist

Sadly, a statewide Minnesota agency has not provided accurate information for more than two years about dual-credit courses that can save families thousands of dollars and help many more students succeed in colleges and universities.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education, or OHE, describes its mission as “to advance the promise of higher education to all Minnesotans and provide the critical information that guides higher education decisions.”

In several ways, it has not done this. Moreover, the commissioner and his staff have not provided information about important details about publication costs and content of its public presentations. OHE needs major changes.

A 2014 Minnesota Chamber of Commerce statewide survey found that the most frequent suggestion among Minnesota parents for improving schools was to increase the number of high school courses in which students can earn college credit. Minnesota has several programs that do this. Courses are offered at high schools, online or on college campuses.

Families urgently need accurate information about these programs. Minnesota families are struggling to afford two- or four-year colleges and universities. This year, the national Project on Student Debt found Minnesota four-year college graduates’ debt ranks fifth in the country, averaging just under $31,000.

In summer 2012, after the 2012 Minnesota Legislature expanded the state’s Postsecondary Enrollment Options law to allow 10th-graders to participate in career technical courses on college campuses, I met with Larry Pogemiller, OHE commissioner. Given OHE’s mission, several legislators suggested that it would be a good organization to share information with about the PSEO revisions. While Pogemiller listened, there was no commitment to follow through.

Two widely distributed OHE publications, produced in 2013 and 2014, show that Pogemiller and his staff did not decide to provide accurate, updated information. The most recent of the two is found here: http://tinyurl.com/kkbr74d.

In October 2014, I noticed more than 100 copies of OHE’s 2013 “Choosing a College” publication were distributed at a family-student meeting at which I was speaking. On pages 5 and 13 the publication:

• Described PSEO but did not mention that 10th-graders were eligible, that PSEO is available online or that transportation funds are available for students from low-income families. OHE described PSEO as a program for 11th- and 12th-graders that required a “B” average – but not all colleges require a B average to participate, depending on the students’ particular strengths.

• Reported that other dual-credit courses such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and concurrent enrollment are for high school juniors and seniors. But some Minnesota high schools allow students to take AP courses in ninth and 10th grades. Some schools offer concurrent enrollment to 10th-graders.

• Did not mention the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) or Project Lead the Way, two other programs allowing high school students to earn college credits.

So later that month, I sent a detailed email to Sandy Connolly, OHE’s director of communications, and Pogemiller. Five weeks passed with no response.

Finally, in December, Connolly told me the person in charge of the publications had information different from what I had shared in October.

Connolly agreed that “The booklet has mistakes” and that OHE will fix them in its next publication and possibly online. She also told me that OHE made more than 100 presentations this year about dual credit to more than 8,000 people. I asked what information was provided in these presentations. She told me that she didn’t know.

Connolly told me that 77,500 copies of the first booklet, and 55,000 copies of the second book were published, at a total cost of more than $134,000.

Commissioner Pogemiller also called me recently. He told me that OHE doesn’t change their publication every time the Legislature changes laws. This policy should be revised. He also agreed that the omissions were a “mistake.”
Changes are needed at OHE.

It should not have taken 2 1/2 years and numerous conversations to fix this.

Public presentations should be comprehensive and accurate.

St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds told me the mistakes and inaccurate information provided by OHE are “unconscionable. Students and families urgently need up to date information.” Mary Cecconi, director of Parents United, a statewide advocacy group, told me “it’s inappropriate for OHE to provide inaccurate information.”

Full disclosure: The organization I direct applied in 2012 for funds from OHE to help train Minnesota students and families on college literacy. Other organizations received these funds, and we did not. That has no bearing on my concerns. But it’s important for readers to know this.

Minnesotans deserve more accurate information from state agencies. They also deserve more accountability about how taxes are being spent.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]