Citing rising demand from cost-conscious families, Massachusetts education officials are launching a new awareness campaign for a state-funded program that allows high school students to take college courses at a discount or even for free.
The Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Partnership, which allows students to simultaneously earn credit toward a diploma and a degree, has seen a marked jump in enrollment over the past few years. But it is still largely unknown to many high school students.
Leaders of the program also hope that increased attention may pressure lawmakers to boost support for the initiative that has seen cuts in recent years and that went entirely unfunded through most of the early and mid-2000s. Experts say its current funding is lower than for many similar programs in other states.
Studies have found that such programs — seen as an alternative, or supplement, to advanced-placement classes — can increase the likelihood that high school students, particularly low-income and minority students, will enroll in college, get better grades, earn a degree, and graduate on time.
Dual enrollment can also offer new opportunities for students who feel their high school classes are not challenging enough.
Charles Husselbee, 19, recently earned an associate’s degree in business through the program, to go along with his diploma from Winchendon’s public high school. He paid next to nothing for 71 college credits through Mount Wachusett Community College and will enroll at UMass Amherst’s business school, where he is scheduled to earn a bachelor’s degree in just two years.
The incoming accounting major calculated that the dual-enrollment program helped him save about $10,000 in out-of-pocket college costs he would have paid if he studied at UMass for the usual four years.
“Before this, I didn’t know how I could afford college,” said Husselbee, who is on pace to be the first in his family to graduate from college. The dual enrollment program “was really the difference between me going to college and me not going.”
A promotional video featuring Husselbee and other students will soon be shared via social media and played during high school visits that state officials make to talk about the public higher-education system.
“We’re in conversations to see what we can do to highlight the program more, and we’re gathering as much data as we can so we can show the Legislature that this is really a good, cost-effective program and very useful for all parties involved,” said Carlos Santiago, senior deputy commissioner for academic affairs at the state higher-education department.
“It’s a crucial tool of not only getting students into college, but retaining students and for students graduating college,” he added. “And the state benefits because it gets students on the road and through college in a faster timeline.”
The program allows as many high school students as funding and space will permit to take college courses through all of the state’s community colleges, state universities, and undergraduate UMass institutions.
The discount that high schoolers receive can vary between campuses. Some campuses, high schools, or other organizations contribute extra funding to reduce students’ cost or to allow more to participate.
Students can receive full credit for successfully completed courses from any public college in the state and some private colleges.
Privately funded dual enrollment also exists. But publicly backed programs are more common, experts said.
State education officials said funding cuts in recent years have stymied the potential expansion of the program in Massachusetts. They are taking steps to boost awareness of the offering.
But in 2001, the then-$1.8 million program was axed as part of broader budgetary cuts. Some legislators at the time described it as effective, but a luxury the state could no longer afford.
It remained unfunded until six years ago when, amid increasing interest in such programs nationally, Governor Deval Patrick led an effort to revive the initiative with a $2 million allocation.
Nearly 3,100 students enrolled during the first academic year after funding was restored. But by the following school year, state support was slashed to $750,000 and program enrollment plummeted to about 1,600 students.
Funding has held steady since, even as the number of students in the program climbed by more than 40 percent, to some 2,300 students this past year.
Participation in dual enrollment programs locally and elsewhere has increased significantly in recent years, according to Joel Vargas, a researcher at the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future who has closely studied dual enrollment offerings across the country.
He said rising interest has been driven by escalating college costs, greater awareness of the programs, and increased focus on college preparedness.
But in Massachusetts, “There’s more demand out there than the state has been able to provide for,” said Vargas.
Rasha Nadheer, 16, an Everett High School senior who emigrated from Iraq four years ago, said she has gotten a taste of college academics through two dual-enrollment courses at Bunker Hill Community College. Plus, she expects to save several thousand dollars on college costs.
“Money has been tight in my family,” she said. “I want to be successful, but I also don’t want to be drowning in debt when I’m 30.”