Colorado lawmakers see a budget threat in the promise of early colleges

Lawmakers are looking to rein in Colorado’s early college programs as districts have expanded their offerings in ways that encourage students to stay in high school for a fifth and sixth year, on the state’s dime.

The same law that created Colorado’s concurrent enrollment program, which allows students to take college courses while in high school, also allowed for early colleges. In these programs, students earn 60 hours of college credit or an associate’s degree before they earn their high school diploma. The State Board of Education has authorized 20 so far, including five that were grandfathered in 2009.

Keith King, the administrator of Colorado Early Colleges who pioneered this model, said the goal has always been to graduate students in four years, though he acknowledged between 20 and 30 percent of his students take longer than that. And new early college programs in some districts are structured with an assumption that students will take a fifth or even sixth year to graduate.

For example, Eagle County Schools advises students to transfer into early college by May of their senior year, and its website touts “Free College – No Longer a Pipe Dream.” “Students will effectively delay their official high school graduation date (but not their ability to walk at the graduation ceremonies with their friends), so that they can complete an identified associate degree or 60 college credits.”

Denver Public Schools is also expanding its early college programs, with five schools approved since 2016 and more planned. The Denver Public Schools website states: “Through a DPS early college, students have the option of completing a fifth year (and even sixth year if under the age of 21) of college-only classes. The goal is for each early college student to earn 60 college credit hours – an associate degree – upon high school graduation.”

Right now these students number in the hundreds and the cost of their extra years in school is barely a blip in the billions of dollars Colorado spends on K-12 education. But state budget analysts have raised a warning flag about the cost of these programs to the state if they continue to expand, one that lawmakers have taken seriously.

“If we don’t fix this problem, we’re going to blow up school finance,” state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, said recently during budget discussions.

Colorado already struggles each year to find enough money to pay for K-12 education, and lawmakers deploy a budget maneuver known as the negative factor or the budget stabilization factor to avoid spending as much on schools as the state’s constitution requires. Even though the proposed 2018-19 budget sends more money to schools, Colorado regularly ranks near the bottom of states in per-pupil funding.

In a memo to the Joint Budget Committee, legislative analysts noted that those extra years of education spread the K-12 budget among more students, some of whom might otherwise get federal assistance like Pell grants to pay for college.

Proposed legislation would narrow the definition of early colleges so that to qualify, their programs must be designed to be completed in four years. The state would still pay the standard per-pupil rate for students who need an extra year or two, just as it does for students at traditional high schools who don’t graduate on time. But programs like those in Denver Public Schools and Eagle County Schools would need to be redesigned to continue to qualify as early colleges. The goal is to reduce the numbers of older students in the pupil count.

Students in traditional high schools who participate in concurrent enrollment and wish to stay a fifth year that consists of college courses can do so through the ASCENT program, but their schools are reimbursed at a lower amount than the standard per-pupil cost and the number of ASCENT slots is capped each year. Early colleges, in contrast, get reimbursed at the regular per-pupil rate, and there’s no cap.

In their memo, legislative budget analysts asked whether it makes sense to cap enrollment in the lower-cost ASCENT program while allowing the more expensive early college enrollment to grow.

Enrollment in early college programs grew by 50 percent between 2013 and 2017, to more than 3,300 students statewide. Last year, nearly 10 percent of enrollees were in their fifth or sixth year — nearly triple the rate from four years before. In 2016-17, 36 percent of seniors in early colleges didn’t graduate and returned for a fifth year.

“The state is effectively responsible for the entire cost of the additional (beyond grade 12) students,” analysts wrote in their memo. “That state funding is then not available to support other K-12 students and/or reduce the budget stabilization factor. While not a particularly significant impact given current early college enrollment, significant growth in early college enrollment would increase the impact on the state budget.”

In addition to cost, the memo raises questions about a profit motive on the part of districts and about equity of access to this opportunity. The cost of a semester of college classes at some community colleges is less than the district gets from the state for each student, leaving the districts several thousand dollars ahead on its fifth and sixth year early college students.

“If the state is going to offer and pay for free postsecondary education (through an associate’s degree or 60 credits), then staff would argue that the opportunity should be available to high school students statewide and not restricted to … those that happen to have the opportunity to attend an early college,” analysts wrote.

In an interview, Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino, himself a former speaker of the House, downplayed the impact of legislation on the district’s plans for early college programs. The most important thing, he said, is that students who need extra time still get it – and the initial version of the bill preserves that opportunity. If Denver has to redesign its programs, district officials will do that, he said. At the same time, Denver has every intention of expanding its early college offerings.

“We want to make sure that every kid who wants to do early college has that opportunity,” he said.

Similarly, a spokeswoman for Eagle County Schools said the district would redesign its early colleges to comply with any changes to the law. The program, new last year, has just 33 students this year.

But districts were concerned enough that legislative staffers drafted an alternative bill – one they didn’t endorse – that would have placed a moratorium on new early colleges while allowing existing ones to continue in their current form.

“I’m sensing serious pushback if you’ve written a whole separate bill,” noted state Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the Joint Budget Committee. The committee didn’t bite, and instead chose to support limiting early colleges to four-year programs.

King, of Colorado Early Colleges, said the more narrow definition reflects what early colleges should be.

“An early college is not about spending an extra two years in high school,” he said. “It’s about moving the college curriculum into the high school.”