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Georgia State Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, right, is congratulated by Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello, in this file photo from 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

High school students in Georgia could be limited to taking a certain number of college credit courses as lawmakers look for ways to save the state money.

The state's dual enrollment program has been growing for years as more students have taken advantage of taking college courses while they're still in high school.

For the second year in a row, after the issue was tabled in May, lawmakers are considering restricting students to 30 college credit hours. If students want to take more, they'd have to pay for courses out of their own pockets.

The new law also would only allow 11th and 12th graders to enroll in the program, but exceptions could be made for students who score extremely well on tests. Students now can take up to 15 credit hours a semester.

Dual enrollment started in 1992 and has worked as a way for students not only to earn college credit earlier but save money on college tuition, because the state pays for the courses. Taxpayers cover the costs for the courses through the state's general fund.

Richard Woods, the Georgia superintendent of schools, recently told reporters that when he took office in 2014, there were about 13,000 students taking adavantage of dual enrollment. Today that number is over 50,000.

As more students take advantage of the program, the cost increases. An audit in 2018 showed spending for the program had increased by 325% from 2012 to 2017.

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, chairman of the Education Committee in the House, said the bill's intention is for kids to get into the right core curriculum classes that align with their future degrees and to make the program more efficient.

"Our whole idea was to make sure this program is manageable as it continues to grow," Jasperse said. "We noticed that costs were going up and people were taking classes that weren't exactly related to [their] degree. So we figured, 'Hey, let's pull it back a little.'"

Jasperse said the hope is the 30-credit-hour maximum will stabilize the program's costs in the budget. The 2019 fiscal year budget was about $105 million for the dual enrollment program. Jasperse said lawmakers want to make sure that number isn't $125 million in the next fiscal year and that it doesn't get out of control.

Jennifer Lee, a senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, said lawmakers' rationale to contain costs by restricting access is reasonable.

"We understand the desire to contain growth, but looking at the overall budget, we look at billions [of dollars]," Lee said. "K-12 education alone is $11 billion. The dual enrollment program is growing, but it's not very large in terms of the entire budget and it's a very effective program."

Lee said the dual enrollment program is crucial across the state but especially in rural Georgia, where access to Advanced Placement courses is harder to come by.

"We want to make sure we don't decrease the number of kids taking these classes. No one wants to limit the number of kids," Jasperse said.

Stephen Owens with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said last week if lawmakers vote to reduce the state's top income tax rate from 5.75% to 5.5%, "everything is up for grabs" in education.

"Dual enrollment, teacher raises, it's all up for grabs," Owens said.

Owens reiterated findings from a Georgia Budget & Policy Institute report that said the state would lose about $550 million with the income tax reducation.

On Thursday morning, the Georgia Senate Higher Education committee voted 7-2 to send House Bill 444 to the entire Senate for approval.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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