Early college a proven winner for students, state

Massachusetts should consider scaling up initiative

OUR STATE’S ECONOMY relies on educated workers, with 70 percent of jobs requiring a credential beyond the high school diploma. However, we are not adequately preparing all our high school students to be a part of that workforce. Higher-income students are three times as likely as their lower-income peers to complete a post-secondary degree. In 2010, while 82 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated high school, only 18 percent persisted to earn a two- or four-year degree.

Early college programs, in which high school students take college courses that offer credit toward both a high school diploma and a college degree, present a scalable education model that meets the needs of historically underserved young people by leveraging the assets of our state’s higher education system. These programs ultimately reduce the time and cost of degree completion while giving young people the confidence to succeed in college.

The Massachusetts Early College Initiative, a partnership among higher ed and K-12 at both the state and local levels, fosters partnerships connecting our state’s districts and high schools with our state’s colleges to give thousands of Massachusetts students, especially first-generation college-goers, access to college completion and career success.

A structured academic program with critical supports to increase college success and career readiness, early college is a sound educational strategy to boost both post-secondary completion rates and reduce inequities within those rates. In these programs, students take carefully sequenced college courses, usually aligned to career pathways, during the school day at no cost to them or their families. Students that plan carefully can graduate from high school with two credentials—a high school diploma and an associate degree at no cost.

Students typically earn at least a full semester of college credit and a growing number may even be able to earn an entire associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school. Currently 23 partnerships of colleges and high schools have earned state designations as early colleges.

The benefits of early college go beyond academics. Students also receive guidance, career exploration, and academic support services to ensure both success in their coursework and a positive transition to college and career. The assistance embedded in early college sets this model apart from dual enrollment programs which focus exclusively on credit attainment. The guidance and mentoring components are crucial to the efficacy of early college.

While Massachusetts is a national leader in educational achievement, we also have some of the greatest educational inequities. Early college programs serve the needs of all students from the historically underserved to accelerated learners, from those focused on a college degree to those looking for skills to move directly to their career. According to research by American Institutes of Research, early college can double associate degree attainment and significantly boost four-year completion rates, yielding broad economic benefits. Early college programming is evidence-based and scalable, with the potential to strengthen high schools, higher education institutions, and our Commonwealth overall, through a broader and more equitable representation of students completing degrees.

The Worcester Public Schools, which partners with Quinsigamond Community College and Worcester State University, lead the Commonwealth in their efforts, boasting 25 percent of the state’s total student enrollment in early college programming. Worcester is also the only large district to offer early college across all its high schools.

This year our Early College Worcester Program has a total of 825 students enrolled in the program with 110 students taking classes this past summer, 300 students taking classes in the fall, and 342 students currently enrolled in spring classes at either Worcester State or Quinsigamond Community College. Approximately 11 percent of Worcester Public Schools high school students are enrolled in the early college program. Seventy-one percent of the students currently enrolled are students of color.

Early College Worcester has had 1,393 students participate in the program by taking dual enrollment classes in the three years the program has been in existence from 2018-2021. Students in the program have graduated high school having completed up to 30 college credits and have gone on to colleges such as Quinsigamond, Worcester State, Columbia, Boston College, the University of North Carolina, Penn State, and the UMass campuses in Amherst, Boston, and Lowell.

No other program to increase college participation and success yields this large a return on public investment. A study by MassINC shows that for each dollar of spending, early college generates six dollars of public benefits and nine dollars of private benefits. However, Massachusetts lacks a funding mechanism to sustain and expand early college programming.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Advocates have proposed an increase of $2.25 million for concurrent and dual enrollment programs and $500,000 for an early college line item. The Student Opportunity Act, passed in 2019, adds significant new funding for K-12 districts with concentrated high needs and whose students are particularly well-suited for early college. However, there is no reliable funding mechanism for public higher education institutions struggling to assume their share of the associated costs. To leverage the investment of Student Opportunity Act funds and to continue the growth of early college program, predictable funding is needed for our public colleges and universities to sustain this work.

Early College is a creative approach to rigorous teaching and learning that provides significant opportunities to high school students, addresses issue of equity, and leverages the unique assets of the Commonwealth’s system of higher education. A sound, reliable mechanism for its sustainability and expansion deserves close consideration by our elected officials and citizens statewide.

Jennifer Davis Carey is executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative. Chris Gabrieli is chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.