Early college programs are game-changers

Giving students a head start into higher ed pays huge dividends

BUNKER HILL COMMUNITY COLLEGE serves thousands of disadvantaged students each year. While many are successful in starting a career or advancing their education, an unacceptable number leave without accomplishing their goals. No silver bullet can nullify all the obstacles that push them off course. However, I believe the early college programs blossoming across the state are as close to a game-changing solution as we will find.

Early college programs are partnerships between traditional high schools and local institutions of higher education. Over the past five years, Bunker Hill formed early college partnerships with Chelsea High School, Charlestown High School, and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. Other area high schools are eagerly awaiting sufficient funding to sustainably enter into similar arrangements with us.

Bunker Hill professors work closely with high school faculty to align English and math curriculum so that students are prepared for the demands of college-level work by the time they reach their junior year. As juniors, they take college classes with Bunker Hill professors at their high schools. The partners work together to provide tutoring and success coaching to help them acclimate to the pace and rigor of college work. Senior year the students come to Bunker Hill for courses, selecting from the college’s extensive catalog.

Intensive advising and career exploration are critical ingredients. Early college students learn about different professions and the paths they take to rise within them. Through internships and job shadowing, they develop contacts and mentoring relationships.

Early college students finish high school with a substantial number of transferable credits and deeper understanding of the wider world that awaits them. One of the hallmarks of an impactful early college program is a clear commitment to access for all students. These programs do not skim top performers; they raise everyone to the top by creating well-designed and supported pathways. So while the vast majority of early college students will be the first in their families to attend college, they head to the schools of their choice as well prepared as those with two college-educated parents.

My staunch belief in this comprehensive approach comes from observing the success of hundreds of early college students at Bunker Hill, as well as the positive results from the early college movement across the United States. Experimental studies with randomized controls find early college doubles post-secondary completion rates for low-income students. Among the many interventions to boost college graduation rates that have been subjected to rigorous evaluation, none provide a larger return on investment.

Data presented recently by the Globe show low-income students in Massachusetts are only one-third as likely to complete college as their more affluent peers. If we are serious about addressing this unconscionable disparity, we should be laser focused on efforts to build and sustain high-quality early college partnerships.

The Student Opportunity Act passed by the Massachusetts Legislature late last year provides school districts with an infusion of funds to implement evidence-based practices to close achievement gaps. Drawing on his prior experience overseeing the development of the state’s largest early college program in Lawrence, Jeff Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, recently issued guidance encouraging districts to use a portion of these new dollars to fund early college initiatives. Working with the Department of Higher Education, Commissioner Riley has also established a robust designation process to ensure that early college programs in Massachusetts adhere to quality assurance standards.

The only missing component is adequate funding to cover the expenses public colleges like Bunker Hill face as more high schools seek early college partnerships. States like North Carolina and Texas, which offer early college to tens of thousands of students each year, recognize these costs and provide funding to both high schools and their college partners.

Community colleges are notoriously underfunded in Massachusetts. While we are competitive around the nation in academic innovations, the lack of funding to scale solutions that work keeps us behind.  The consequences of neglecting public institutions that serve the largest numbers of disadvantaged students are readily apparent. Growth in income inequality has outpaced most other states. Massachusetts’s high-paying tech sector lacks diversity, and employers increasingly struggle to fill open positions.

Over my career, I have watched community college educators try with all their might to help more of their students succeed. We have finally hit upon a formula that works. With an extremely modest investment, Massachusetts can reap the rewards.

Pam Eddinger is president of Bunker Hill Community College.