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Dual-enrollment programs, in which high school students receive credit for college-level courses, have been growing rapidly.

But a recent accreditor clarification about the required credentials for instructors who teach early-college-credit programs has highlighted problems relating to equity, insufficient data and the pipeline of instructors for some colleges and states.

In 2015, the country’s largest regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, issued a policy clarification stating that high school teachers of dual-credit courses, along with instructional college faculty members, are required to have a master’s degree in the specialty they’re teaching, or at least 18 graduate-level credit hours within that specialty.

Some states and institutions, particularly those with significant numbers of dual-credit students, like Indiana and Minnesota, pushed HLC for an extension so they could meet the requirements. The accreditor then pushed the deadline to September 2022 for any institution or state that applied for one. For those that didn’t apply, the clarification went into effect this past fall.

“Each state is starting from widely varying places as they address the teacher credentialing problem,” said Jennifer Parks, director of innovation for the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. “Data is a key issue. It is difficult for a state to address an issue if there is no reliable information on the number of teachers affected, the numbers of credit hours or master’s degrees they need, and the subject areas in which those teachers need those credits or degrees.”

Parks is studying the response to the HLC guidelines within MHEC, which includes 12 of the 19 states HLC oversees.

She found that while it may appear that some states are not responding to the instructor credentialing issue, it could be that they are only beginning to address the full scope of the problem. In states where there isn’t a central higher education agency, it falls to colleges to craft their own plans, Parks said.

Some states were never far off from meeting the new standard. Illinois, Iowa and Ohio, for instance, already had established standards that require instructors to have the master’s-level specialty credentials that HLC requires or standards that closely resembled HLC’s clarification, said Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

For example, a few years ago Iowa moved to require a master’s degree plus 15 graduate-level credits in the subject area instructors teach. And Lowe said most instructors in the state meet the HLC minimum of 18 graduate credits.

“Some states were caught unaware of the HLC changes to faculty credentialing standards,” he said. “HLC had been steadily making noise over the years about faculty credentials. Their guidelines going back 10 years were quite vague, and they were slowly increasing the specificity of them. “

But once HLC clarified the credentialing rules, things changed, he said.

Take Illinois, where dual-credit instruction has been growing for the last 10 years despite a statewide budget crisis. Last year, 9.2 percent of all credit enrollments in Illinois were dual-credit students -- an increase of more than 7 percent since 2015.

“This is why HLC is paying so much more attention to and scrutiny of faculty qualifications, particularly on the dual-credit side,” said Brian Durham, deputy director for academic affairs for the Illinois Community College Board. “We have to ensure we have qualified faculty by HLC standards in dual-credit courses as we continue to blend that high school-college experience.”

Challenges for Rural Institutions

Parks said leaders of state agencies and institutions have told her about new concerns that have arisen because of the HLC clarification. One issue, for instance, is the difficulty in recruiting high school teachers with the qualifications to teach college courses.

Although Illinois already had standards in place that were similar to HLC’s, a handful of colleges pursued the extension, Durham said.

“Certainly, there is an effect and ongoing issue for every community college in Illinois and in the country about meeting faculty qualifications in rural areas where they have trouble recruiting faculty,” Durham said.

Concurrent-enrollment teachers or faculty members tend to be experienced veterans and work in places where class sizes are increasing, Lowe said. And because education is underfunded and salaries are low, those instructors aren’t sticking around long.

The state’s community college board does a five-year recognition process for colleges where they examine the dual-credit qualifications of instructors. Those that aren’t in compliance have to create a plan to address the issue, Durham said.

“It is impacting campuses -- particularly small, rural community colleges -- already since it went into effect [last] fall,” Lowe said. “But it is disproportionately affecting concurrent dual-enrollment programs, because they represent a larger share of the adjunct pool and that’s your largest pool of minimum-qualification people.”

Purdue University Northwest, for instance, saw enrollment in its dual-credit programs decline dramatically in 2016 because the institution had a shortage of high school instructors who could meet the HLC guidelines, Lowe said. Indiana, however, was one of the states that was granted an extension to comply.

Durham said the Illinois community college board has had recent discussions with universities and the school districts about offering online courses for teachers to help them meet the qualifications, but nothing has moved beyond the discussion stage.

Ohio, which had similar standards in place for faculty members, still found a pipeline issue for high school teachers with credentials for dual-credit courses. So in 2015 the state spent $10 million to help teachers get the appropriate graduate course work.

Half of the $10 million went directly to the teachers, while the other half went to colleges and universities to create “teacher-friendly” programs such as online or weekend classes, said Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

However, the scholarship money ran out and new money wasn’t allocated, Davidson said.

Meanwhile, the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension’s early-college instructor requirements are similar to HLC’s. And the two-year system goes a step further by pairing dual-credit high school teachers with college faculty members, who work with them as mentors.

But the system is facing a similar problem to others that cover largely rural areas -- finding qualified instructors. So it’s launching a pilot program where high schools identify qualified students who are taught a dual-credit English course online by the colleges’ faculty instructors, with a high school teacher available in the classroom as an academic coach, said Cathy Sandeen, the system’s chancellor.

Sandeen said there aren’t enough incentives for high school teachers to meet HLC’s guidelines.

“In this case, it won’t come with a salary increase,” she said. “There is a shortage … and we get concerned about rural areas and small schools, because we want them to have equal access.”

The state’s two-year colleges also have seen significant growth in its early-college-credit programs. Last year more than 2,500 high school students were enrolled in dual-credit programs at the UW Colleges compared to about 1,560 students in 2015.

“We need to be much more innovative in how we provide access, because it’s not fair to have this sort of disparity,” Sandeen said. “There are very talented, motivated students everywhere and they deserve the opportunity.”

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