Seven potential pitfalls for high-school students taking college classes

Don't take just any class. (mikecogh via Flickr)
Don't take just any class. (mikecogh via Flickr)

Students who take college classes while in still in high school often suffer from misconceptions that could hamper attempts to shave time off their college degrees, Minnesota education officials say.

For Heidi Bobier, it meant not realizing that the art survey class she took at Ridgewater College while still in high school wouldn't fully transfer to the University of St. Thomas. Instead of fulfilling her St. Thomas art requirement, she said, it counted only as an elective.

“Much to my dismay, I ended up spending some $3,200 (the cost of a UST class) to take "Modern American Jazz," she stated in an email. “Not ideal. … It would have been much better if I knew right away that I was going to St. Thomas. That would have affected which classes I took, meaning I wouldn't have wasted time on the art class that St. Thomas wouldn't [directly] transfer.”

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is Member supported public media. Show your support today, donate, and ensure access to local news and in-depth conversations for everyone.

In the state's free Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, students can potentially graduate from high school with enough academic credits to skip the first two years of college. That could save tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and related costs.

Except for that art class, the system did work well for Bobier. The 24-year-old public-relations-and-marketing professional from St. Louis Park said taking PSEO classes while a high school student in Hutchinson helped her get her St. Thomas communication degree in two and a half years.

“Figuring out my major quickly meant I could take specialized classes in addition to knocking out the generals most four-year schools require,” she said.

But, as Bobier learned, the system is more complicated than many students and parents realize -- and officials say confusion over policies exists. Differing high-school and college requirements lead some students to take college classes they might not need, or that their dream college won't accept.

"They come in with an expectation that 'I'll be able to graduate in two years,'" said Danielle Tisinger, director of the PSEO program at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. "But once they're in college, they find they have so many things completed -- but not toward their actual major or degree."

PSEO is one of the several dual-credit programs available to Minnesota students, which include College in the Schools, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

It attracts 8,600 or so students each year -- less than a quarter of the 37,000 students who take exams in Advanced Placement, arguably the largest dual-credit option in the state.

Tisinger (UMN)

But PSEO is the only program that puts students into classes on college campuses, one of the most comprehensive such programs in the U.S, according to its advocates.  They say it's a great way for students to try out the college experience, take more rigorous courses and save time and money in the process.

The average Minnesota PSEO student earns roughly one college semester before leaving high school, said Center for School Change program coordinator Marisa Gustafson, citing a legislative report. It's unclear, though, how many of those credits end up being accepted by colleges.

Just because students take a class at one college doesn't mean it'll be accepted by another college later on -- at least the way they hope it will.

"So much matters what the credits are," said Deborah Sullivan-Trainor, acting dean of college of arts and sciences at Bethel University. "Students should think about, ‘What are the requirements that I need to meet? And where am I on the path to meeting those requirements?’

Richard Aune, dean of admission at Gustavus Adolphus College, was blunter: "Don't just get put into something just for the sake of being put into something."

Sure, any education is beneficial. But to avoid surprises when it's time to transfer credits, parents and students should watch out for the following:

Watch that double-dipping (drewgeraets via Flickr)

Some out-of-state colleges don't accept PSEO credits."As a general rule," Tisinger said, "the farther out you go from Minnesota and the more selective the college, the less likely credits will transfer."

Some colleges limit the number of credits students can bring in. Walking in as a "junior" isn't possible on some campuses. Carleton College, for example, accepts up to about two-thirds of a year in credits. Others accept less.

Colleges might not allow "double-dipping."  Macalester College, for example, accepts PSEO credit only if it hasn't already been used to fulfill a high school requirement.

Colleges may accept some PSEO credits only as electives. This was what Bobier encountered. And some colleges, such as Carleton, generally don't allow the PSEO credits to take the place of subject requirements. (Students may, however, be able to take higher-level classes in that subject because of their PSEO experience.)

It's a common issue, said Center for School Change Director Joe Nathan.

Nathan (CSC)

And it's one that could be problematic.

First, it involves a tradeoff. Students are usually allowed to take a limited number of electives in college -- courses that don't count toward any particular degree, but which they find really interesting. (Think: The History of Rock Music.) If students fill all of those slots with PSEO classes, they might not be able to take those fun subjects.

Second, after the electives maximum is reached, any remaining PSEO classes may not count for credit toward graduation.

Finally, students may have to take some of those same PSEO courses over again in college to fulfill that college's subject requirements.

Colleges and high schools sometimes have differing standards. That sometimes causes students to take more lower-level college classes than they need, Tisinger said.

For example, she said, a high school may require three social studies classes to fulfill a social sciences requirement -- even though the college a student wants to attend requires only one such course to get a degree. Students who take those three as PSEO courses may find out later on that two are counted as electives.

Also, broad introductory college courses might not fulfill a high school's narrow subject requirements.

"A high school might require you to take take British literature," Tisinger said, "and a broad college Introduction to Literature course may not count for that British lit requirement."

Students may also face odd sequencing of courses. Some high schools, for example, require that students take macroeconomics -- not microeconomics -- before they graduate. That's in contrast to the U, she said, which requires students to take microeconomics before they take macroeconomics.

"So a student trying to fulfill that economics requirement," she said, "must take two classes here."

Some college degree programs, such as nursing and education, have their own sequencing, so courses must be taken in a particular order, said Sullivan-Trainor. Students need to be aware of that when they choose their courses.

Yet deciding on a major too early might lead to poor choices. Taking PSEO classes toward a major could backfire for some. Tisinger has found that "the earlier we’ve push those 'you need to know what you’ll do for the rest of your life' questions on students, the harder it is for them to make realistic assessments. When we see students in junior year, that assessment might not be as realistic two years later when they have a better idea."

Meanwhile, GPAs could suffer. High schools often calculate a "weighted" GPA to acknowledge the difficulty of advanced high school courses. But PSEO officials said some high schools won't allow PSEO courses to be counted in a weighted GPA. So tough PSEO courses could hurt students' high-school class rank, GPA, and the chance to win some money-saving academic scholarships later on.

Nathan called it "the largest single issue that has risen up recently."

PSEO isn't the only dual-credit program with snags, and education officials have lauded its benefits. They stress that students should plan their PSEO classes far ahead and consult both their high-school counselor and the official who handles PSEO credit transfers at the college they want to enroll in.

The Center for School Change offers more information here, and the Minnesota Department of Education has a page here.