It’s time to scale up early college in Mass.

Gives more students an early shot at degree

STUDENTS FROM FAMILIES with financial means are two and half times more likely to earn a college degree in Massachusetts than students who come from low-income families. This disparity isn’t breaking news, nor are the consequences, which include high levels of income inequality and enormous racial wealth gaps.

What is new is that there is actually something, now backed by strong evidence, that we can do about it.

Early college programs, which let students pursue college-level coursework and gain post-secondary credits while still in high school, represent a rare example of a straightforward approach that can take a large chunk out of the growing post-secondary completion gap.

In the education sphere, we often struggle to find scalable interventions that make a meaningful difference in addressing long-standing challenges. If we want a less divided post-pandemic Commonwealth, expanding the state’s budding Early College Initiative is a tangible way to give more students an equal shot at a college degree. The fate of the initiative in the House budget next week will provide an important test of our resolve.

Like so many innovations in education, the concept of designing high schools to help students transition to college-level coursework has roots in Massachusetts. In 1966, Simon’s Rock early college opened in Great Barrington. The private institution sought to demonstrate that teenagers could tackle far more demanding work than the typical high school curriculum asked of them. Years later, Bard College (which acquired Simon’s Rock in the 1980s) recognized the model’s promise to help underserved students succeed in higher education. Beginning in New York City, and expanding over time to Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, Bard built a network of early college high schools.

Through trial and error, these schools transformed the high school experience to address multiple challenges that combine to create a formidable barrier to college completion. Across the country, there are now hundreds of early college high schools that partner with local colleges and universities to deliver a very specific formula that positions underserved students for post-secondary success.

By challenging students to tackle more rigorous coursework in high school, and providing intensive advising, tutoring, and counseling, early colleges build academic skills, confidence, and direction. Students earn a significant number of transferable credits for free, significantly reducing the total cost of college. Early colleges also offer a variety of fields of study, integrating career exploration and internships to make the coursework more relevant and give students solid pathways to rewarding employment opportunities in growing industries.

Nationally, two separate randomized controlled trials have found that this model doubles post-secondary completion rates for low-income students and students of color. While providing early college costs a few thousand dollars more per student than the traditional high school format, rigorous estimates suggest each dollar invested returns $15 in benefits.

Massachusetts may have given birth to the early college concept, but it trails far behind leading states when it comes to leveraging it to increase equity in higher education. North Carolina and Texas put the full might of their public higher education systems behind the approach, making the opportunity available to tens of thousands of students in just a few short years. In 2016, the boards of higher education and elementary and secondary education passed a joint resolution calling for a strategic effort to grow early college in Massachusetts.

A new MassINC study evaluating the progress of this effort finds early college is making a tremendous difference for those who are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to participate. Students in the 35 state-designated early college high schools are 53 percent more likely than their peers to enroll in college immediately after high school and remain persistently enrolled two years later. However, these programs must scale dramatically to have impact in the aggregate. At present, they serve less than 2 percent of students of color and just 1 percent of low-income students in Massachusetts.

Up until now, lack of funding has been the primary obstacle preventing far more students from benefiting from early college. With billions of dollars in one-time federal recovery aid flowing into Massachusetts, we have an extraordinary opportunity to quickly expand access to early college to tens of thousands of high school students around the state. School districts can draw on these resources to cover additional expenses, including program administration, advising, tutoring, and transportation. When these federal resources are spent down, they can turn to state Student Opportunity Act aid, which is steadily ramping up each year, giving high-need districts significantly more funding to better serve students.

The only remaining obstacle preventing growth is predictable dollars to reimburse colleges and universities for the instructional expenses that they incur providing courses to high school students. Last year the Legislature made funds available to cover these costs in a particularly difficult budget. With programs expanding, next year the bill will increase by more than 50 percent to over $6 million. Setting a strong precedent of fully covering these expenses as they grow is critical to ensuring that school districts, colleges, and state government are aligned when it comes to executing on this strategic initiative.

Rep. Jeff Roy of Franklin, former chair of the higher education committee, filed amendments to ensure that the House budget fully funds early college. He is joined by Reps. Alice Peisch of Wellesley and David Rogers of Cambridge, current co-chairs of the education and higher education committees, and Rep. Kate Lipper-Garabedian of Melrose, who served in a leadership role at the Executive Office of Education before she was elected. Support for early college among these senior leaders shows a serious commitment in the legislative branch from a policy standpoint. Responding to a flood of community support, dozens of representatives have signed on as cosponsors of these amendments and leaders in the Senate are gearing up to advocate for early college in their branch.

As the budget debate begins, it is crucial to reflect on how Massachusetts built one of the world’s most knowledge-intensive economies without a parallel effort to address large disparities in access to higher education. This miscalculation has come at a real cost. When rigorous research reveals an effective remedy, we must act with urgency. In this spirit, we should all lean into the state’s Early College Initiative.

Ben Forman is the research director and Simone Ngongi-Lukula is an education equity fellow at MassINC, the public policy think tank that is publisher of CommonWealth.  They coauthored the report Early College as a Force for Equity in the Post-Pandemic Era.