FARGO – Teaching high school courses that also allow students to earn college credit will soon require a master's degree, a change that shouldn't affect the Fargo-Moorhead metro area's three big school districts.

But officials at smaller school districts in Minnesota and North Dakota worry that they may be forced to stop offering dual-credit classes if they can't find teachers with the right degree or graduate credits.

The Higher Learning Commission - the higher education accrediting agency for 19 states, including Minnesota and North Dakota - recently decided that by Sept. 1, 2017, all dual-credit high school teachers must have a master's degree in the area they teach. If they have a master's in another area, they must have at least 18 graduate credit hours in the discipline that they're teaching. The ruling doesn't allow for any grandfathering for teachers with lesser qualifications.

"It's going to create some problems for us," said Cory Steiner, superintendent of Northern Cass School District in Hunter, N.D. "We have teachers with master's degrees, but not necessarily in those classes. How will we get something that will benefit our kids, and do it with the staff we have? ... I hope they will give us some time to work through that."

Steiner said Northern Cass has a teacher with a master's in math, but adding other dual-credit classes in social studies, speech or composition could be a problem.

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"We're just going to be in a holding pattern, just because we don't have the staff in those areas," he said.

Hawley (Minn.) High School Principal Mike Martin said his school offers nine semesters of College in the Schools classes and two labs for credit. Fifty to 60 students take the classes, which save them thousands of dollars in college tuition and fees.

Most of the credits are offered through Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, Martin said.

About a third of Hawley student have a year of college credit under their belts by the time they get their high school diploma. Not long ago, Martin put pencil to paper and figured out what four grads had saved given the costs of the schools they were attending.

"I think it was $83,000 that those kids had saved," he said.

"What I'm most concerned about, as time unfolds, that schools in general will be able to find people" with the right degrees, Martin said. "The big thing for all of us is the uncertainty."

Hugely popular

Minnesota high school students have used the Postsecondary Enrollment Options program to attend classes at colleges and universities since 1985. In 2012-13, 9,177 were getting college credit in that program.

The dual-credit option, called College in the Schools, started in the 2007-08 school year with 17,581 students, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education reports. As of 2012-13, it had 23,583 students enrolled.

The Minnesota Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships reports 59,749 course registrations in 2013-14, earning 208,629 college credits. That saved families more than $55 million in college tuition, the group reports.

The North Dakota University System reports 2,909 high school students enrolled in college courses as of Tuesday. Altogether, they were taking 4,119 courses.

The southeastern North Dakota region had 825 students registered for dual-credit classes, up from 800 last year, said Barbara Spaeth-Baum, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota State College of Science.

Trish Schrom, NDSCS's dean for extended learning, said 43 schools in the region offer dual-credit classes, with NDSCS credentialing about 80 high school teachers as adjunct faculty.

North Dakota requires teachers to have a master's degree and 12 to 16 graduate credits in the discipline they're teaching for dual credit. That's short of HLC's requirements. She said state officials are discussing that, including whether to ask for an extended timeline for compliance.

Officials at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction say that even if a school has no instructors qualified to teach dual-credit courses, there are other options for college credit.

Districts can turn to interactive television and other technologies as alternatives, said DPI Assistant Superintendent Bob Marthaler.

However, Martin said it's been his experience in Hawley that having a teacher in front of the class is a more authentic learning experience.

""Our students, almost 100 percent, prefer the in-house experience," he said.

It can also be much cheaper to have a live teacher, Martin said.

Hawley High School can offer a dual-credit class of 25 students for $1,800. That same $1,800 would only pay for three students to take an online course, with tuition of $450 each, plus the cost of books and access cards, Martin said.

LIttle effect in metro

Moorhead School District started offering dual-credit courses this year through Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead. The district has three classes of students taking math for college credit, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said.

MState, which offers the credit, required that the teacher have a master's degree, Kovash said.

The ruling "really hasn't had an effect on us," she said.

The district also has a robust set of Advanced Placement courses. Plus, being relatively near MState, MInnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College makes it easier for students to take college coursework away from the high school campus.

More than half of Moorhead teachers, 271 of 445, have also earned a master's. But many are in disciplines such as educational leadership, Kovash said, leaving a smaller number of teachers with the degree needed to teach in a subject area, such as English, chemistry, or social studies. There, Kovash says, the district could use help from local colleges and universities in providing graduate courses.

The West Fargo and Fargo school districts offers dual-credit classes through NDSCS.

In Fargo, the requirement for a master's degree depends on what is taught, spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said.

Fargo's dual-credit classes are offered in science and social studies. Campbell said 17 teachers are teaching a combined 20 classes at North, South and Davies high schools this year.

West Fargo offers nine dual-credit classes at West Fargo High School and 10 at Sheyenne High School, district spokeswoman Heather Konschak said.

"We really have not had time as a district to analyze what all the impact would be of those new requirements, but we feel confident that we would be able to offer all the classes that we currently are," Superintendent David Flowers said.

Other districts concerned

Farther away from the F-M metro, the level of concern varies.

In Detroit Lakes (Minn.) High School, about one-quarter of the junior and senior classes take dual-credit courses.

"I'm left scratching my head because I don't understand why there was no real conversation about this - it just kind of happened," Principal Darren Wolff said.

Wolff said he wonders what will happen when teachers with the needed master's degrees or graduate credits retire.

"We know we have teachers that would no longer meet the standards as it's being discussed today," said Lake Park-Audubon Superintendent Dale Hogie. "And while we would still teach those classes, the students just wouldn't get college credit for it, and that is a real loss to students and their families both in terms of time and in terms of money."

In Frazee-Vergas, three out of the five instructors teaching the courses would not meet the new requirements without taking more credits, Superintendent Terry Karger said.

Chris Kittleson, principal at Central Cass High School in Casselton, N.D., said about 25 students take a dual-credit English class accredited by Mayville (N.D.) State University

Other college courses are offered online through Mayville State.

"I think we're fairly well covered. We have a fair number of teachers with master's degrees," Kittleson said.

Detroit Lakes Tribune reporter Paula Quam contributed to this report.