In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing greater academic, social, and emotional challenges than ever before. Schools can’t address these needs on their own — and families need options. As families, caregivers, and schools look for ways to assemble a range of education options to meet students’ needs, Bellwether sat down with Filling the Gap cohort participants to discuss how assembling a more flexible educational ecosystem can be responsive to students’ needs. Stay tuned for more Q&As in this Bellwether blog series as March continues. To learn more about Filling the Gap and to read more in this Bellwether blog series, click here. Posts have been edited for clarity and content.
People for PSEO is a nonprofit focused on reducing student debt and expanding opportunities for all Minnesota high school students. I sat down with its executive director, Zeke Jackson, a Filling the Gap cohort participant, to find out more about what the education climate is like across the state.
Paul Beach (PB): You have a unique role as a student advocate in this space. Tell me about your path to People for PSEO and what sparked your interest in this work?
Zeke Jackson (ZJ):
I’m a senior at the University of Minnesota studying political science and entrepreneurship, and I’m also the executive director at People for PSEO. Our team of PSEO students, alumni, and supporters work to increase awareness of and enrollment in the state’s Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) dual-credit program with a special focus on creating opportunities for students furthest from opportunity.
In high school, I was what’s called a “PSEO” student, which means I participated in Minnesota’s PSEO dual-credit program. I was able to enroll in college classes and earn credits while still in high school. In the process, I found out that a lot of high schools are in tension with Minnesota’s PSEO program because of the per-pupil funding formula in the state. The funding followed me to college in the PSEO program instead of going to my high school. It’s not widely talked about, but schools don’t like it and many administrators don’t have a full understanding of the program and what it entails — or that PSEO students are still technically enrolled in high school.
My high school experience sparked an advocacy interest in the PSEO program space. I created People for PSEO and was among the first 10 people to join. I served as a board member, raised funds to hire staff, and am the executive director. We’ve always had a vision of a student-run, youth-led organization for and by students. I started full time as a 17 year old and senior in high school, and am now a senior in college. It’s really full-circle work for me right now.
PB: Can you tell us about the current education landscape in Minnesota? And in particular, how have families, students, and schools dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of Minnesotans, especially students and families from rural parts of the state like where I was raised. There often isn’t reliable internet access or high-quality Wi-Fi, but students without school devices were somehow expected to attend class online. We saw a steep dropoff in Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores for literacy and math proficiency rates statewide in large part because of this dynamic and the pandemic. Many educators feel like they’re playing “catch up.” And for students who were in online school, it’s often a tough transition to go back to in-person learning. Many students have mental health issues, feelings of loneliness, etc. We need to rethink and reimagine what a school environment looks like for students, and what “going back to school” means.
PB: Let’s focus on your organization and work. What’s Minnesota’s PSEO program and how does it work?
Minnesota’s PSEO program is a unique piece of public policy and the only program I’m aware of that reduces the cost of college for students without increasing costs to taxpayers. In a nutshell, it provides free college for high school students by replacing high school classes with postsecondary coursework. By completing courses at a community college or four-year university, students earn college credit and fulfill their high school requirements. It’s free in the sense that the designated per-pupil money follows PSEO students from high school to college.
For colleges, it’s a nice deal since PSEO students fill seats that might otherwise be empty, so they’re recovering otherwise sunk costs. And from a high school’s perspective, they’re receiving funding for a student that isn’t necessarily there for the whole school day.
PB: What have you found are the biggest barriers to access for the PSEO program, and from your perspective, who are the students furthest from opportunities that the PSEO program provides?
Barriers are due to a confluence of factors: lack of awareness, gatekeeping by high schools, counselors who may not think students are ready for college, and middle school students who often don’t have the best GPAs. Of those, I think the biggest barrier to access is that students don’t know the PSEO program exists.
The PSEO funding formula incentivizes school districts from keeping students from participating, while also preventing colleges from advertising the PSEO program (it’s illegal for postsecondary institutions to tell high school students that they can save money through the PSEO program). And students furthest from opportunity are the least likely to have PSEO marketed to their families. Right now, white students are overrepresented in the PSEO program, usually with middle- or upper-income kids making the most of the program’s resources. Meanwhile, low-income students and students of color aren’t accessing PSEO at equitable rates. It’s something we’re focused on solving at People for PSEO.
The program is often marketed to the “best and brightest” students, but that’s not really how PSEO actually works. Student participants do it for so many reasons — to save money on college, because their high school doesn’t offer dual-credit programs, because they need to work more hours at a job with a flexible schedule, or because they just didn’t like the traditional high school environment. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the program and its student population.
PB: How do you work on expanding awareness of the program and increasing equity among its student participants?
There are a few different ways that we’ve been sharing information about the PSEO program with students and families. One of them is through sharing information and materials with students on social media and on our website. We also partner with other nonprofit organizations to hold webinars and share information with organizations that are working with the same target audiences as us, which, again, are the students who are overlooked when it comes to college admissions or preparing them for college in high school. We have a successful partnership with the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, a college readiness program that provides electives in middle and high school across Minnesota and the nation. We go into those classrooms and describe the dual-credit programs in the state and make sure students have information about PSEO at their disposal to start planning for their future and to save as much money for college as possible.
PB: Tell us more about how your organization has captured and leveraged the stories of alumni in your communication and outreach to prospective PSEO students?
Through our work raising awareness, we’ve found that the best way to communicate about the program’s efficacy is via alumni stories. People for PSEO has a lot of success stories from the field gathered mainly via social media. We’ve also found a lot of success finding alumni using LinkedIn. If you just search PSEO on LinkedIn, you’ll find 5,000+ people that mention in their LinkedIn profile that they participated in PSEO. We reach out to those folks and send them a survey to ask them to contribute back to the PSEO program by sharing their story. We put quotes and stories from these alumni into our social media to advertise the PSEO program to students. We also use those surveys to identify problems with the program and to gather proof points on Minnesota’s educational landscape overall.
PB: What’s one piece of advice you’d give a student-led organization that is advocating for expanding access to advanced coursework opportunities for high school aged students?
The biggest piece of advice I’d give is to fail forward: Form a hypothesis about a solution, and get on the ground and start testing your assumptions to get the work done. When things don’t work, move on and try the next thing. One way People for PSEO failed forward was on outreach methods about programs. We tried a million and one different things from finding students to advertise in their high schools to recruiting college campuses to creating student PSEO clubs to posting flyers. All of which were things we haven’t necessarily been able to see an obvious or immediate return on investment for — until we figured out our formula for webinars and in-person engagement. Sometimes, it takes awhile to figure out what works but you have to keep trying.
PB: Does People for PSEO have partners with similar organizations in other states or at the national level?
We have done advocacy at the federal level. Right now, if you’re a PSEO student in Minnesota who qualifies for free and reduced-price meals at school, that money doesn’t follow you to the college campus. We did research on other states for dual-enrollment students and found out this was a common problem. Through federal advocacy work, we’re trying to change the rules in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have the money follow students on a national level for free and reduced-price meals. But things at the federal level move so slow and as a full-time student doing this work, our organization hit some resource constraints to keep that level of advocacy up. We’re hoping to solve this in the Minnesota state legislature this session, but it ultimately needs more federal intervention as a critical barrier of access for students.
PB: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention or put a finer point on?
PSEO is a policy that’s really unique to Minnesota. We were the first state to have anything like this back in 1985. So many students going into debt through higher education didn’t have access to a program like this in high school. Over and over, I hear a desire for programs like PSEO elsewhere. One long-term objective is to improve PSEO in Minnesota, but also to establish the state as a national leader in this type of policy and education innovation. We want to advocate for other states to do this work.