Joe Nathan column: 2 new ways to save thousands in college costs

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Joe Nathan

While lots of attention is focused on disagreements between some Minnesota legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton, these policy leaders have agreed on two new opportunities that can save Minnesota students and families thousands of dollars in college costs.

Both involve high school work that will be accepted by the Minnesota state public colleges and universities. The first, which starts this fall, allows students to use statewide standardized reading and math test scores to skip remedial courses. The second allows students mastering one or more of 16 languages to earn free college credit.

The new policy about statewide Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores responds in part to an important, recurring question that students ask: Does this test count? Now, the answer is yes. By doing well on the reading and math MCA tests they take in high school, students can avoid taking remedial or developmental courses offered at Minnesota State two-year colleges and four-year universities. This can save thousands of dollars. Research and experience also show that students who take remedial courses are less likely to graduate.

Jennifer Dugan, director of the Research and Assessment Division at Minnesota Department of Education, told me that students applying to Minnesota State colleges or universities can ask for their MCA test scores to be sent, along with their grades, to these institutions.

In talking via email with representatives of more than 20 Minnesota district and charter high schools, I found a little confusion on this point. Some planned to do this, while one district thought it was not legal to send MCA scores. Duggan emphasized that state law does permit this.

MDE officials also are eager for more students to know about this opportunity. Of the representatives of the more than 20 high schools I talked with, only two reported that students had asked that their MCA scores be sent to Minnesota State colleges or universities. Doug Anderson, Minnesota State director of communications and media, pointed out that more information for students and schools, including how the colleges and universities treat the test scores is found here: Additional information is here:

Another way for Minnesota students to save money on postsecondary education is via Minnesota’s world language seals and proficiency certificate programs. They were adopted by the Legislature in 2014 and revised in 2015. In my conversations with high school representatives, I found participation varies widely. Some schools are making extensive use of this opportunity, while others are considering it. These programs are voluntary for districts and charters.

Assessments that are free to students are now available in American Sign Language, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hmong, Japanese, Karen, Latin, Ojibway, Oromo, Russian, Spanish and Tamil. Students in grades 10-12 can participate in this program. Doing well on the assessments can produce college credit at the Minnesota State institutions. The seals can be put on students’ transcripts and diplomas.

Ursula Lentz, world language and English learner specialist at MDE, told me that last year, Minnesota students did well enough on more than 1,000 assessments to earn free college credit. The program is voluntary for districts and charters. However, Lentz emphasized that she is “glad to facilitate the process” between interested families and schools. In fact, she’s already helped a family work out arrangements with a school. Lentz’s contact information and more information about the program can be found here:

Here are examples of what local districts and charters reported to me about these two programs.

David Heistad, executive director of Bloomington Public Schools’ research, evaluation and assessment, wrote: “No students have asked for MCA scores to be submitted. We will be putting MCA proficiency levels on the transcript.” Superintendent Les Fujitake told me, “Our high schools are developing processes for the bilingual seals program.”

Steve Massey, Forest Lake Area High School principal, wrote: “We have three students, each taking the Spanish proficiency tests. The district will be covering this cost. … This program is available for any student who feels that he/she may score at a level that will earn the seal and, therefore, provide a benefit when applying for college.”

He continued: “We will be notifying families and students about how MCA scores can serve as a placement exam in the areas of college reading and mathematics. We will be encouraging students to bring copies of their MCA scores along with ACT scores to their college orientation sessions when they are registering for their first-year classes.”

Julia Espe, superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, wrote: “No, we do not have this program for our students, but it looks like something that we should have students involved in! We are exploring it for next year.”

Carissa Keister, community engagement manager for Stillwater Area Public Schools, wrote: “We did have students take part in the bilingual seals program, including students in Level 4 French and Spanish, as well as some students who have language skills outside of school. We have not received results yet, so do not have all of the stats you’re requesting, but hope to have them by the end of the week.”

Robert Bach, Stillwater Area High School principal, wrote, “To my knowledge, only one request has come through our counseling department regarding the MCA notification.”

Jon Gutierrez, St. Croix Preparatory Academy’s executive director, wrote, “Currently, none of our students have used the bilingual seals program; and none of our students have asked to submit their MCA scores to a Minnesota state college.”

According to Scott Gengler, Wayzata High School principal: “So far this year, we have three students who have earned a seal already, two in Spanish and one in Arabic. Six more students are scheduled to test. … We have many more students who took the AP exams but won’t have their scores until July.”

Stacey Lackner, director of research and evaluation for Wayzata Public Schools, reported, “I have not had any requests from students for MCA scores to submit to Minnesota state colleges.”

MDE officials are eager to work with students, families and schools to help make these opportunities available. Thanks to state policymakers for making this cost-savings possible.

At a time when there is considerable contention in politics, it’s good to see collaboration that recognizes and honors student achievement.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].




3 Responses to Joe Nathan column: 2 new ways to save thousands in college costs

  1. Denise Wolk says:

    I think that it is great that the state is identifying ways to help students and families lower the cost of college. A robust public engagement campaign will help more students to participate in them. These days every little bit helps!

  2. Thank you for bringing attention to the Bilingual Seals program and the potential they have to get students free college credit. Bilingual Seals are a major opportunities to focus on the career and college ready skills of thousands of bilingual students in the state. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul School districts are pushing major initiatives to ensure that students who speak Hmong ,Somali and Spanish at home have opportunities to have their bilingual skills recognized and earn them access to college credit. See to celebrate the work that Minneapolis Public Schools is doing. In 2015-2016 MPS awarded World Language recognitions earning college credit potential in 7 languages for 639 students. For students who have traditionally been viewed as students in need of remedial education because they do not speak English at home, the Bilingual Seals are a major game changer by being focused on students assets and recognizing the importance of bilingualism as a major 21st century global competency. Please spend time more featuring the work of the districts leading the way, so that those districts quoted here as awarding seals in the single digits to students in traditional world language classes can share resources and initiatives that open doors for ALL learners.

  3. Megan Budke says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to the Bilingual Seal! It has been fantastic to see students receive recognition for ALL of the languages they know, not just the ones offered at schools. At Wayzata Public Schools, we are excited to see students receive the recognition they deserve! More information about earning the Bilingual Seal can be found at Since we implemented the assessments and awards in 2016, we have awarded 163 students World Language Certificates and Bilingual Gold and Platinum Seals for proficiency in the languages of Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Russian, Spanish, and Tamil.

    One important note – the assessments for the Seal are NOT free. They do have a cost and in my conversations with a number of districts, the way the assessment fee is handled depends on the school district.

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