Dual Enrollment graph

Since 2012, the number of Montana high school students taking at least one dual credit class has grown steadily.

Montana was slow to offer teenagers the chance to take “dual enrollment” classes that give credit toward both high school graduation and state college degrees, but now it’s catching up fast.

Since 2012, dual enrollment has grown from 1,000 high school students statewide to nearly 6,000 this school year, according to last week’s report to the Montana Board of Regents.

“Dual enrollment has just skyrocketed,” said John Cech, deputy commissioner of higher education. “It is something to really be proud of.”

Yet while the share of Montana high school students taking dual enrollment classes has grown to between 15 and 25 percent, that still lags behind states like Idaho (28 percent), Washington (47 percent) and Iowa (55 percent).

High school students like dual enrollment classes because they can get a head start on college and earn college credits at reduced cost. At Bozeman High School this year, students paid just under $50 per credit, or $150 for a typical three-credit college class, said Principal Kevin Conwell.

“It’s a great deal for students and families,” Conwell said Tuesday.

A typical three-credit class at Montana State University costs a Montana freshman $700 to $885 per semester in tuition and fees.

This year, 180 Bozeman High School students signed up for dual enrollment classes.

They could take advanced math, applied writing, biomed 4, college welding, computer coding, interior design, intro to teaching and, new this year, fourth-year classes in Spanish, German and French. Some classes offered credit through MSU and others through Gallatin College, MSU’s two-year college.

Amy Williams, dual enrollment manager for the commissioner of higher education, cited other benefits for dual enrollment students.

They do better than their peers when it comes to staying in college after the first year – 80 percent, compared to 68 percent for those who didn’t take dual-credit classes.

They have better grades as college freshmen – 3.1 GPA compared to 2.8 GPA for other students. They earn on average 4 more credits in their first year of college.

And it turns out that high school students who earn B’s and C’s make bigger gains than “A” students, compared to peers who didn’t try dual-credit classes.

Low-income students, eligible for federal Pell grants, also do better if they take dual enrollment classes in high school, showing higher retention rates and GPAs and earning more credits.

One benefit for the Montana University System is that dual-enrollment students are more likely to attend a state college campus – 63 percent do, compared to 38 percent for the average Montana high school graduate. And when students graduate from a Montana state college, they’re also more likely to stay and work in Montana after graduation.

High school teachers have to meet the same standards as adjunct university instructors to teach dual enrollment classes. At Bozeman High, Conwell said, that means having master’s degrees in math or English to teach those classes.

To expand dual enrollment, Williams said the state is working on several issues. One is to get more high school teachers qualified.

Another is to get more small rural schools to participate. All 14 of the state’s largest, AA high schools offer dual enrollment, and 85 percent of Class A schools do. But only 53 percent of Class B schools do and 19 percent of the smallest Class C high schools.

Another area Williams is working to expand is in CTE (career and technical education) classes, like welding, culinary arts, automotive, construction, education, health sciences, computing, and technical math and writing.

The biggest obstacle for many high school students is the cost, even at $50 per credit. When City College, the two-year school attached to MSU-Billings, announced in 2016 that it would offer free tuition to Billings-area high school students taking dual enrollment classes, enrollment tripled.

“We need to do something,” said Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education. “Fifty dollars is a barrier some students can’t get over.”

Cech said at MSU-Billings, one high school student had earned so many City College dual enrollment credits, the student was able to graduate with an associate’s degree, two weeks before graduating from high school.

Student Regent Chase Greenfield said he feels passionately about the importance of dual enrollment classes. He said he came from California with dual enrollment credits, and without those he wouldn’t have been able to take opportunities like serving for a year on the Board of Regents, or it might have taken him an additional year to graduate.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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