As dual-credit program grows, lawmakers get an unexpected bill

Idaho’s dual credit program is growing beyond expectations.

And that will leave the Legislature with an unexpected $6.1 million bill.

Lawmakers earmarked $6 million for advanced opportunities programs in 2016-17. Advanced opportunities is a catchall line item that includes dual credit — a program that allows high school students to enroll in college-level courses, at the state’s expense.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee learned the extent of that expense during its tour of North Idaho this week. The bill for advanced opportunities will come to $12.1 million.

That will mean the 2018 Legislature will dip into the Public Education Stabilization Fund — a budget reserve designed to cover unexpected K-12 costs.

There is ample money in PESF to cover these added dual credit costs for 2016-17 — as well as another likely withdrawal to cover 2017-18.

The 2017 Legislature boosted the advanced opportunities line item, but only to $7 million. If dual credit enrollment continues to grow, or even if enrollment just remains stagnant, the $7 million won’t come close to covering the costs. In other words, the Legislature will need to make another withdrawal, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a JFAC member who plays a key role in writing public school budgets.

Dual credit is one of several programs the state has launched — or expanded — in hopes of improving its languid college graduation rates. The theory behind dual credit is that it allows high school students to take college classes at little to no cost, while getting a taste of the rigor and demands of college-level work.

The state allocates $4,125 for every seventh- through 12th-grade student, to cover the cost of dual credit classes, “overload” summer or after-school classes or college-level or career-technical exams. Students can receive up to $75 per credit, which more than covers the $65-per-credit cost of most classes.

There is no question that the state’s dual credit program is growing — and, with it, the cost to taxpayers has grown as well.

But with the growing cost has come questions about whether dual credit is giving the state an adequate bang for the buck.

In September, the State Board of Education flirted with the idea of tightening dual-credit language, based on parental comments that suggested the bulk of the 80,000 taxpayer-supported credits wound up covering college electives. The State Department of Education says the bulk of dual-credit courses actually cover general college credits. In the end, the State Board recommended no changes in the dual credit program.

Last week, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking urged the state to take a closer look at the dual credit program — to make sure courses support a student’s career choice, and make sure the credits transfer seamlessly between Idaho’s colleges and universities.

Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, is a member of a gubernatorial task force examining the state’s higher education system. The group is expected to make recommendations in September.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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