Kler Say had a problem when he graduated from St. Paul's Harding High School last spring. Say really wanted to go to college and study business. But he'd come to the U.S. from Thailand only five years ago and knew his English skills weren't college-ready.
"(My cousin) said if you go to college, you'll have to take the English language learner class, they will take your financial aid and you'll spend more money," Say said.
Minnesota students collectively spend millions of dollars each year on "developmental courses," classes taught on college campuses that students must take if they don't meet the school's competency requirements. While required, they do not count toward a student's degree. The courses average $542 each at Minnesota public colleges.
A recent state report found 8,452 students from the high school class of 2013 enrolled in developmental courses within two years of graduation, spending $11.8 million on the courses.
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Say didn't want to spend that money. So his cousin pointed him toward another option.
Say enrolled in a free course last summer called College Yes! at St. Paul's Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning. It's part of a program called the College Readiness Academy, offered through the state and federally-funded adult basic education system.
Say said his English has improved in the class, although he still has some difficulties. He said he may take more classes at the Hubbs Center. "I will be ready here, and if I go to a college it will be better for me."
Adult basic education is not typically known for this kind of college preparation. It's more commonly recognized for classes geared toward high school diploma alternatives like the GED. Just 1,751 adult basic education students throughout the state were enrolled in courses specifically designated for college preparation during the 2015-16 school year, according to the state education department.
"(College readiness) is kind of a new way of thinking about adult basic education coursework," Hubbs Center teacher Elizabeth Fontaine said.
Public colleges and universities throughout the state assess new students' skills using a test called the Accuplacer. Students who enroll in the college and score below a cut-off in reading, math or writing are placed in developmental courses.
Fontaine said high school graduates often don't know there's a free alternative to that placement.
"They feel like they should be in college, for whatever reason. That's where they're supposed to be. And so they don't want to spend the time in courses that have no direct affiliation with a community college," Fontaine said.
St. Paul College student Mihret Issa depended on College Readiness Academy staff to teach her about college finances. Issa said she learned that a state grant she's using to help pay for college will run out eventually. She also gained academic skills in the classes.
But the free courses didn't get Issa all the way to a degree program. This fall she's enrolled in two developmental courses at St. Paul College.
Some students pay for developmental classes even after having completed adult basic education. And in some cases, the two programs work together. One of the College Readiness Academy courses takes place on the St. Paul College campus. The college is considering bringing more of the program on-site in the spring.
"There's an element of overlap, but our goal is not be seen as a competitor for adult basic education," St. Paul College vice president of academic affairs Kristen Raney said.
College officials insist the distinction between the course options isn't just free versus paid.
"There's more at stake ... It's a faster pace, and it's a lot more work for the students," St. Paul College developmental reading instructor Celeste Mazur said.
Mazur said when students are on a college campus they start learning about how college works. Instructors match "the expectations, demands, rigor of college courses in a supportive environment."
Still, it's clear both options are recruiting some of the same students.
A report on the College Readiness Academy identified student recruitment as the program's biggest challenge and noted that students "save money by taking developmental education classes free-of-charge at (College Readiness Academy)."
Available state funding for adult basic education has been underutilized each of the past four years, and overall enrollment in programs has declined over that period.
At the same time, colleges have made reforms to developmental education, including accelerating courses and reducing enrollment in them.
This year the Minnesota State system launched its own free college preparation program: a summer program that provided 143 students free developmental instruction. Students who completed the program received a $150 scholarship for fall tuition at a Minnesota State college or university.