NEW PORT RICHEY — The popularity of high school dual enrollment continued to vex the Pasco and Hernando school districts and Pasco-Hernando Community College as their leaders met Friday.
Since 2009, enrollment in the program at PHCC has risen by 34 percent. Meanwhile, the associated costs for the college and districts have gone up 57.5 percent, surpassing $2.5 million.
High school students do not pay for the credit-bearing college courses, which also count toward high school graduation. Officials said they support offering the opportunities, but wondered how they can afford the growing demand.
Some called it an unfunded mandate.
"The solution is simple," said Dr. Rao Musunuru, chairman of the college board of trustees. "Someone has got to pay for it."
And that someone could possibly be students or their families in the future, Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning suggested to the group.
"This is a free ride," Browning said. "These are kids that, yes, they are entitled to it. But this is a college credit course. Maybe the time has come for some consideration for some small fee to go into the dual enrollment course. If we are talking about solutions … and we want to sustain a program, and a high quality program, we've got to look at all the options."
His idea won some initial support.
PHCC trustee Jeanne Gavish called it "brilliant," adding that a "discounted college education is better than a full ride college education."
Dennis Alfonso, attorney for both the Hernando and Pasco school boards, later threw cold water on the idea. He pointed out that the state constitution guarantees a free public K-12 education, and such fees might contradict that provision.
State Sen. John Legg, the New Port Richey Republican who chairs the Senate Education Policy committee, also dismissed the dual enrollment fee concept as "highly improbable" during a break in the conversation.
But the talk served to highlight just how critical the connections between the K-12 system and higher education have become, Legg said. He said one of the driving issues in this year's legislative education policy discussions will be the increase in dual enrollment, and the ties between the final years of high school and the first years of college.
"What is driving the exodus out of the high schools in 11th and 12th grades?" Legg said to the group. "I don't have an answer to that. I don't know what the outcome will be. But that is the question we are asking."
The college and school board leaders kept dual enrollment on their list of key issues to investigate and collaborate on as they move ahead.
They also added two other categories to delve into: long-range planning in areas such as joint use of facilities and online learning, and cooperation in clarifying the continuum of education from preschool through college.
Working in small groups, the participants began discussing what the details of these broad categories might boil down into. In the end, they volunteered to serve on committees to take the ideas forward to actions.
"It's good for everybody to get together and talk about our common issues and ways to resolve them," Hernando School Board chairman Matt Foreman said. "We still have a long way to go to get this to be at a point where it's as valuable as we'd like."
PHCC president Kathy Johnson said now that the college and districts identified their shared concerns and issues, the next step will be to "drill it down to what impacts all of us."
The officials said they would meet periodically and share updates as needed, so the communities can see what steps they are taking.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.