Under a measure the Senate advanced Monday, most high school students could be on the hook for college credits they earn in Utah’s concurrent enrollment program, which benefited 26,000 students last year. SB284 is necessary to keep the program solvent, backers say, but it could impose a barrier to education for low-income students, particularly high-achievers served by university-affiliated charter schools.
"It could be devastating to the culture we have worked so hard to create," said Karen Cavin, a math teacher at Itineris Early College High School. "We need to have a level playing field for our children regardless of the economic abilities of their parents."
Utah is a leader in the movement to provide college instruction to high school students. Last year more than 26,000 high school students earned nearly 186,000 hours of college credit for free. Lawmakers like the program but it’s financially unsustainable, according to the sponsor of a bill that would allow universities to charge students up to $90 per course.
Most Itineris graduates leave high school with an associate’s degree from Salt Lake Community College, saving them thousands of tuition dollars toward their bachelor’s degrees.
To address concerns raised by education officials and the governor, SB284’s sponsor amended the bill to create two exemptions: students who qualify for subsidized lunch programs would not pay a fee, nor would any student enrolled in one of a new set of statewide general education courses to be delivered electronically. The amended version moved to the House with dissenting votes from only four senators, all Salt Lake County democrats.
Universities are required by statute to provide instruction to high school students, but the Legislature has not adequately funded the program.
"A lot of concurrent enrollment is being funded by existing college students," said SB284 sponsor Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. "They have to pay higher tuition to subsidize it. The model in higher education is people pay for their credits."
Unless universities charge "partial tuition," as Urquhart proposes, he fears concurrent enrollment opportunities will be cut back, which could cost students far more than the $30 per credit SB284 authorizes. The measure would allow universities to raise up to $5.5 million, according to its fiscal note.
"Where are they getting the $30? Are they are pulling that out of thin air?" Cavin asked. "If the colleges need more money, give them more money. Why punish students who are doing what the state wants them to do, leave high school ready for college?"
Charging could undermine the state’s efforts to have two-thirds of Utah adults holding a post-secondary degree, according to Cristine Kearl, the governor’s education advisor.
"You’ll have classrooms where one student can afford to pay the tuition, but the other students, because they live in poverty, don’t get the college credit. We see this as discriminatory," she said in a committee hearing on the bill.
Itineris principal Stephen Jolley predicted the measure, which would cost his students up to $360 a semester on average, could cut his enrollment in half.
"We are bringing higher education to people who have traditionally not been served," he said. "Let’s not take programs that are working and cut them off."
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