ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to rein in the costs of the state’s increasingly popular dual enrollment program, which lets high school students receive credit for taking college courses.

But they’re not resting on those achievements. Given Georgia’s growing workforce demands, two legislative committees are working this summer to find ways both to ramp up the program and make it financially sustainable.

“The whole point of this study committee is developing more highly skilled talent at younger ages,” state Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, said last month at the first meeting of a joint House-Senate study committee on dual enrollment he co-chairs. “The idea is to get [students] certified faster and into the workforce faster.”

“We’re not trying to fix something that’s broken,” added Georgia Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, the study committee’s other co-chairman. “We’re simply trying to take a good program and make it even better.”

The cost of the dual enrollment program, which had about 49,000 students enrolled as of last year, peaked at $105 million in fiscal 2020. That had been reduced to $76 million by the time the General Assembly adopted the fiscal 2024 state budget last March.

The difference is House Bill 444, which the legislature passed in 2020, capping the dual enrollment program at 30 hours.

Until then, dual enrollment students were free to take as many college courses as they wanted while still in high school, Irene Munn, a board member with the Georgia College and Career Academies Network, told the study committee.

“It was just way too much,” she said. “We set parameters on the amount of money [the state is] investing in dual enrollment.”

But Munn said House Bill 444 created “stumbling blocks” that needed to be addressed. Students were having to wait until they hit the 30-hour cap to begin taking technical college courses.

The General Assembly responded this year by passing Senate Bill 86, which lets dual enrollment students use funds from the state’s HOPE Grant program to pay for those career courses and earn an associate degree.

“It’s allowed us to get qualified students into the workforce sooner,” Munn said. “We’re getting kids into well-paying jobs at 18 and 20.”

Getting students into the workforce quickly is proving critical to meeting Georgia’s workforce demands. A wide range of professions are suffering shortages of workers.

“More nurses are retiring every year than are coming into the practice,” Scott Steiner, president and CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, told members of the joint study committee. “We’ll be 80,000 short in Georgia by 2030 if we don’t turn it around.”

The number of trained workers is also failing to keep up with demand in other careers, including the skilled manufacturing trades.

Part of the problem is the stigma that surrounds blue-collar jobs. High-school counselors tend to steer students toward four-year colleges, as do many college-educated parents.

Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, said the state needs to do more outreach to show students and parents the benefits of a skilled trade.

“I think we should really focus on how do we put some budgetary money into advertisement through social media, reach the kids where they are and show how attractive this is,” she said. “A big part of that is showing how much money you can make.”

“If you can take a 17- or 18-year-old graduate from high school coming from a family that’s in generational poverty … that’s transformational, not only for the student but for that family,” added Dan Weber, a former state senator now serving as executive director of the Georgia Charter System Foundation. “They can come out making $45,000 or more a year.”

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, suggested the state do more to spread the word about the advantages of a technical college education by creating an online “decision tree” that would steer students and parents toward trades they might be interested in pursuing. The GAFutures and Georgia Degrees Pay websites may not be enough, he said.

“There are still a lot of parents and students who don’t know they’re out there,” Martin said.

Greg Dozier, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, said the system is working to expand the number of technical college courses that allow students to transfer credits seamlessly to a University System of Georgia institution.

Dozier said more technical college students are entering the system directly out of high school rather than waiting until they make mid-career switches. As a result, the average age of a technical college student in Georgia has dropped in recent years from 36 to 26, Dozier told members of a second ad hoc committee on dual enrollment formed by the House.

“We no longer have that lost decade,” Dozier said Friday.

The two committees will continue meeting this fall to develop recommendations for the General Assembly to consider during the 2024 legislative session starting in January.