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Report Calls For Rapid Expansion Of Early College Programs

A new MassINC report argues that early college programs could help Massachusetts tackle a number of pressing problems: like yawning credential gaps across race and class, sagging enrollment in public colleges and a shortfall in skilled workers.

But the current state program — established in 2018 — only served around 4,000 students this year, about 2% of the students who would stand to benefit. The report’s authors, and supportive advocates, are asking officials to speed up its rollout.

As of 2018, low-income students were 2.6 times less likely to earn a college degree within six years of high school graduation than their wealthier peers. Similarly wide gaps separate Black and Latino graduates from their white classmates.

Ben Forman, the research director at MassINC, co-authored “Early College as a Force for Equity in the Post-Pandemic Era” (PDF), published Wednesday. He said it found that early college is the closest thing to a “silver bullet” state officials have as they confront those inequities.

“There’s not one reason why low-income students have trouble graduating from college — it’s a complex problem,” said Forman, MassINC’s research director. By that token, he said, early college is a fittingly complex solution: “It hits on every one of the if-thens.”

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The program allows high school students to take classes for free at nearby public colleges, earning their first college credits — and some momentum — along the way. It introduces them, gradually and with support, to more rigorous college-level coursework. And it could help make the entire proposition of college seem more familiar — and less intimidating to a first-generation students.

The MassINC report said state data confirm the hypothesis. Last year, program participants were 66% more likely to complete a FAFSA application in search of financial aid, and 54% more likely to enroll in college promptly, than non-participating peers.

The past year was fraught with risks — to health and family finances — that stymied many low-income students seeking a higher education. But early-college graduates, though not immune, showed unusual resilience.

A screengrab from MassINC's report on early college programs.
A screengrab from MassINC's report on early college programs.

Despite the program’s promise, Forman and co-author Simone Ngongi-Lukula argue, Massachusetts officials and lawmakers have ended up shrinking its reach.

The state’s Department of Higher Education was supposed to reimburse participating colleges for each early-college credit they taught. But in the last fiscal year, that reimbursement was underfunded by 26% — a hit to already cash-strapped institutions. The start-up grant awarded to high schools starting new programs shrank considerably, too: from $120,000 to $30,000.

Forman's report arrives during the busiest part of the budget cycle — with hopes of reversing that trend. It calls for the legislature to return to a full reimbursement of participating colleges, leading up to a $62 million expense over several years, and to redistribute current spending to focus on new and fast-moving programs.

A coalition of advocates from across the state — and the ideological spectrum — have already called for action in a letter to lawmakers (PDF).

Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, was one of the signatories. He says that — despite its historic support for education spending — his group doesn’t “make budget asks lightly.”

But Lambert argues that early college would help address a cascade of socioeconomic problems that worry business leaders. The region's growing communities of color earn too few degrees that would qualify them to fill needed jobs and diversify the workforce. A "degree gap" also limits the lifetime earning power of tens of thousands of people, and thereby the state's consumer and tax base.

In the end, Lambert said the state could get on the right track with “a pretty modest investment,” starting with an additional $4.4 million in the year ahead.

The first experiments with early college began in Massachusetts at Simon’s Rock, the private college in Great Barrington, in 1966. Lambert said it’s a sad irony that almost 50 years later, the program has been embraced far more broadly in places like North Carolina and Texas.

“In an odd way, Massachusetts is often challenged by its complacency,” he said. “We’ve got to be bolder, and we should be using the end of this pandemic to think about how we reinvent education here” to better serve all students — to and through college.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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