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College-Credit Law for High-School Students Assailed

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When he enrolls at Colorado State University this fall, a student from Niwot High School in Longmont, Colo., reportedly will begin his regular college career with enough academic credit to make him a second-semester sophomore.

The student had already earned 45 college-credit hours while still in high school, courtesy of his school district, which paid for his tuition.

Like a growing number of others, the student was participating in a state program that allows high-school juniors and seniors to take college courses at school-district expense.

The program is drawing press scrutiny and criticism from school officials, who contend it is enabling many students to rack up as many college credits as they can while leaving state and local taxpayers with the bill.

The state's "postsecondary options" program allows eligible public-school students to take courses at public two- and four-year colleges for high-school and college credit. If the courses meet a high-school graduation requirement, the local school district must pay the students' tuition.

The program was adopted by the legislature in 1988 as a way of providing students who were bored with their high-school classes a taste of more challenging college coursework.

The Colorado law is similar to programs adopted in several other states in recent years, frequently as part of a public-school-choice measure. While such postsecondary-option proposals generally have been among the less controversial ideas to emerge from the school-choice movement, the Colorado controversy suggests that they can become the source of considerable expense and potential headaches for school officials.

Perhaps the best-known and most extensive postsecondary-options program is that of Minnesota, where some 6,000 juniors and seniors participated this past academic year.

Critics of the Colorado program point to two unintended consequences in its first two academic years. Some students have used the program to enroll in "trivial" college courses, such as aerobic dancing or tennis, detractors say, while others are getting a head-start on their college careers by taking numerous postsecondary courses for free.

"We are concerned about the rapid, inappropriate growth of this," said Phil Fox, who is the chief lobbyist for both the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives.

"Sure, there is some percentage of kids who are bored to death in high school," Mr. Fox said. "If they want to go take Chinese history, or nuclear physics, more power to them."

"What the vast majority of this is being used for is a lot of frivolous classes, and by kids to pick up a year of college credit at taxpayer expense, neither of which we believe is very appropriate," he added.

A total of 407 students statewide took advantage of the program during its first year, 1989-90. Most of those took only one or two courses, but 17 juniors and 33 seniors attended a college or university full time under the program, according the the state education department.

No figures were available yet for the academic year that just ended, but officials believe that participation increased and the interest in the program will continue to grow.

The Poudre school district in Fort Collins, for example, had 63 students enrolled in college courses this semester, at a cost of at least $32,000, said Ann Foster, executive director of educational services.

Ms. Foster noted that the courses can have a negative impact on students as well as on district finances. "Some students are jeopardizing their college choices because they are taking tough college courses and their [high-school] grade-point averages are dropping," she said.

Some students have asked for their college-course grades to be dropped from their transcripts, Ms. Foster noted, but school officials are barred from doing so.

Richard A. Laughlin, deputy commissioner of the state education department, defended the program as a way of expanding the educational opel15ltions of many high-school students.

Mr. Laughlin said he saw no problem with secondary students collecting college credits because "they have made a double use of those credits."

"In terms of the taxpaper, it means that is less time that those kids are going to be in college," he argued.

Mr. Laughlin acknowledged that some school officials are concerned about the amounts they are having to pay out in tuition, but "it is not necessarily a burden on the district." Since the student is still enrolled in the school district, the district gets a full share of state funding for that student, he said.

The legislature this year passed a bill that would have expanded the postsecondary-options program to include three nonsectarian private institutions.

The bill also would have limited the options program to courses that were not offered by the high school. Currently, students can take a college mathematics course to meet their high-school requirements, for example, even if a similar course is offered by the high school.

Expressing concern about the direction of the program, however, Gov. Roy Romer vetoed the bill this month.

"I believe that we need to clarify, as a matter of policy, how far we are going to go in providing local school-district funds to pay tuition in both public and private institutions of higher education," he said in his veto message.

"He has some concerns about the overall program," said Cathy Walsh, the Governor's legislative director. "He thinks we should evaluate it now that we are couple years into the program."

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