Georgia Senate backs changes setting limits to dual enrollment program

Students cross Ellis Street at Piedmont Avenue at Georgia State University.

Students cross Ellis Street at Piedmont Avenue at Georgia State University.

Georgia’s state Senate voted along party lines Tuesday in favor of legislation that would reduce how many college classes high school students can take that are currently paid for by state funds.

House Bill 444 would significantly change the state's popular, but increasingly expensive, dual enrollment program. It would cap students to a total of 30 credit hours, limiting courses mainly to 11th- and 12th-grade students. Currently, students can take up to 15 credit hours a semester.

Students who want to take more than 30 credit hours would have to pay for additional classes. The legislation has a grandfather clause allowing current dual enrollment students to continue under the system now in place.

The bill was adopted by a 34-18 margin. The legislation, which has the support of Gov. Brian Kemp, now goes to the Republican-led state House of Representatives for a vote.

Kemp’s office held meetings last year with education leaders and organizations to discuss changes to the program. The governor tweeted Tuesday that the legislation “preserves our dual enrollment program for future generations of students.”

Other Republicans used similar language to support the changes.

"We put guardrails on the bill for generations to come," Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, said Tuesday in remarks on the Senate floor.

Several Democratic senators, particularly African Americans, raised concerns that it will increase college costs for lower-income students who now earn credits by taking the courses at no cost. They likened the changes to the 2011 overhaul of Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program, which now has tougher eligibility requirements and no longer completely covers tuition.

"This bill weakens our students' education," said Sen. Gail Davenport, D-Jonesboro.

Dual enrollment, once known as Move On When Ready, began in 1992 as a way for high school students to take college courses, earning college credits. The state pays the public or private college where the student is taking the class. The average cost per credit hour at most Georgia regional and state universities ranges between $169 and $182.

Students can take courses in a wide range of subjects such as accounting, chemistry, information technology, psychology and welding. About three-quarters of credit hours are in core subjects such as math and English. About 60% of dual enrollment students are taking courses in Technical College System of Georgia schools.

Enrollment has nearly doubled in a recent four-year stretch, from about 27,000 students in fiscal 2016 to nearly 52,000 students in fiscal 2019, state records show. Georgia’s fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30.

A 2018 state audit, though, found general fund spending for dual enrollment increased by more than 325% over the prior five years. The fiscal 2019 budget was about $105 million.

Senators spent more than one hour debating the bill. The debate grew into a larger discussion about higher education funding in Georgia. Democrats said dual enrollment accounts for a small portion of state education funding and that more state funds are needed, pointing to higher education cuts a decade ago after the Great Recession.

Some Democrats said a thorough analysis of the bill was not was done.

"I'm not satisfied if we did our job (researching the bill)," said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.

Strickland countered with data to support the 30-credit limit. He said the most recent statistics show 1,688 of those 52,000 students taking dual enrollment courses had more than 30 credit hours.

Supporters say part of the goal is to get students to take more courses in core subjects, such as math and science. Lawmakers said in a Senate Higher Education Committee meeting two weeks ago that there were some students taking many classes that did not seem relevant to their studies.

"Dual enrollment is effective and we want to do everything we can to make sure it is effective for the future," said Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton.