Early College is delivering; let’s build on it

Worcester partnership shows the value of state investment

AS HE ADVOCATED for public K-12 education in the 19th century, Horace Mann called it “the great equalizer.” Unfortunately, today, that’s no longer true. But a 21st century educational innovation, Early College, can help equalize opportunity, and it’s time for a similarly broad public commitment. 

College degrees, not high school diplomas, provide upward economic and social mobility. In 2020, those with associate’s degrees earned 20 percent more and those with bachelor’s degrees earned nearly 70 percent more than high school graduates. Yet enrollment at state universities and community colleges in Massachusetts has fallen since the pandemic began, disproportionately so among students of color, and in particular, men of color. With the Latinx population the only high school-aged demographic that is growing (44 percent of Worcester’s high school population in 2020-2021), these trends are troubling, to say the least. 

Early College (EC) counters these troubling trends. Similar to the state’s dual enrollment program, high school students in Early College programs, at no cost to students or their families, take college courses, earning both high school and college credit simultaneously. Importantly, EC also provides comprehensive student support services. Many EC graduates have earned a semester’s worth of credits, propelling them down the road to a better, more promising future.  

The results statewide are head turning. According to a MassINC 2021 report, 63 percent of the EC class of 2020 enrolled in college within six months of high school graduation, compared to 43 percent of school peers, in the midst of the pandemic; 58 percent of EC graduates from the class of 2019 were still enrolled in college versus 38 percent of their school peers; and EC participants are 38 percent more likely to earn a degree.   

As presidents of the largest public higher education institutions in Worcester, we combined our resources with those of a third partner, the Worcester Public Schools, in 2018. Supported by a pilot grant from Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) we’ve facilitated this pathway to college, united in our commitment of higher education for all. All seven of Worcester’s public high schools participated, forming the largest Early College program in the Commonwealth, Early College-Worcester (ECW). It’s become apparent ECW works extremely well.  

We are encouraged that Gov. Baker has proposed a substantial increase for EC in his FY23 budget proposal. As the Legislature weighs in, we ask members to examine the success of ECW – especially in reaching racially diverse and low-income students – and consider fully funding an expansion. 

In our model, students take courses through either Quinsigamond Community College or Worcester State University. Transportation and mentoring are essential components. Since 2018, 565 students have graduated with one or more courses worth of college credit, while 65 students have earned at least a full semester. Just as important as the “free college,” they’ve gained the confidence that they belong in college.  

Roughly 800 students are currently being served; 74 percent of them are students of color and 9 percent are homeless. And they are succeeding. In the summer and fall 2020 terms, 242 A grades were earned, and only 12 Fs, for a total of 1,029 college credits. Class of 2020 and 2021 graduates who enrolled in post-secondary school were 16 percent Asian, 26 percent White, 27 percent Black, and 30 percent Latinx, and more than 90 percent low income. 

Some expansion is already underway, via two competitively awarded grants we recently received from DESE. One would help us design and develop a “full school” immersive pilot, whereby students would graduate from one high school with a minimum of 30 college credits, and the other would ramp up the number of those served overall.  

We fervently believe in this educational model to help equalize a grossly uneven higher education playing field, which is why we invested in ECW and cover a significant portion of its costs. Scaling up, however, is another matter. We cannot ask our students – whose fees, in essence, subsidize this program – to foot that bill.  The Commonwealth can and should do more. Minnesota – a state with more than a million fewer residents than Massachusetts – reimburses participating post-secondary institutions at $207 per credit and commits about $32 million to EC. By contrast, Massachusetts allocated $11 million to it in the current fiscal year. 

With additional state support, Early College-Worcester could reach 2,000 of the city’s roughly 8,000 high school students, providing proof of concept for expansion to all Massachusetts mid-sized, gateway cities – those that are much like Worcester. EC is an important add-on to the state’s longstanding dual enrollment program and is decidedly different than the AP courses high schools offer. Both provide college credits for high achievers. By contrast, ECW reaches the vast majority of students, many of whom say they could not succeed without the robust supports we offer. 

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Meet the Author
The state’s Department of Higher Education has united its public institutions in pursuit of equity, noting that it is “more than simply creating a level playing field; it requires a concerted and intentional effort to remove barriers and obstacles that hinder the success of students that heretofore did not have these advantages.” With state investment in Early College, Horace Mann’s equalizing role can once again be achieved – and more equitable higher education outcomes assured – as students move seamlessly from high school through college. 

The road to degree-attainment and prosperity runs through our public colleges and state universities, via Early College, but we can’t do it alone. Early College-Worcester offers a model that promotes equity and expands opportunity – a public good, requiring public investment. 

Barry M. Maloney is president of Worcester State University. Luis G. Pedraja is president of Quinsigamond Community College.