If there were a low-cost public education intervention that increased college completion rates for disadvantaged students — say, a policy that provided a return on investment of $15 for each dollar spent — wouldn’t it be a no-brainer to fully embrace it?
Such a policy exists in Massachusetts, albeit in embryonic form. It’s early college high schools, the partnership between high schools and local higher education institutions that allows 11th- and 12th-graders — typically low-income, Black, and Latino students — to take free college courses and help them transition into college. The concept has been around for a few years, but it has now evolved into a state-funded, certified program that includes nearly 40 high schools and 19 colleges and universities serving almost 2,900 students as of last fall.
Why, in the midst of a pandemic, should early college be a priority? Because it addresses two vital issues related to the crisis: educational equity and economic recovery. Early college expands opportunity for Black and brown kids who may otherwise be left behind.
There is concrete evidence it’s been working in Massachusetts: Participants in the program are enrolling in college within six months of graduating high school at a 20 percentage point higher rate than peers not in the program. And while state leaders have shown a commitment to early college, there’s still more to do to accelerate the pace of scale-up.
“Early college disrupts the system of expectations that stems from your zip code,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, one of the participants in the state’s early college program. “But the only way for disruptions to grow into patterns or transformational interventions that are large enough to have a generational impact is money.”
But Massachusetts has been tentative while other states have led the way and shown how to grow early college into robust programs. North Carolina enrolls more than 15,000 students, investing $3,300 per student, according to a 2019 MassINC report. Texas and Indiana’s own initiatives, more than 15 years old, serve 70,000 and 7,000 students, respectively. Oh, and about the 15-to-1 return on investment: A cost-benefit analysis of some of the best early college programs in the country found that the average cost to the government per student is about $3,800, but the estimated lifelong public and private monetary benefits of that relatively small investment total nearly $58,000.
The idea behind early college — allowing students to earn free college credits while still in high school — is not new in the Commonwealth. Dual enrollment programs have been around for a long time; and the state is a national leader in Advanced Placement success, in part by expanding to underserved districts. But the difference is that early college programs are designed to serve disadvantaged students who have traditionally been underrepresented in such initiatives. Roughly 45 percent of participants in the state’s early college program are low-income and a majority are students of color; nearly half are Latino and close to 20 percent are Black.
“[Early college] is an opportunity to explore not only the academic areas [students] are interested in early on, but it also helps them save money on higher education and figure out what they’re truly passionate [about] before graduation,” said Odanis Hernandez, the chief operating officer at Lawrence Public Schools. In 2019, the state’s early college students earned a total of 5,088 college credits, which represented an estimated savings of at least $1 million in tuition and fees.
The magic of early college is how it can make real what some students could otherwise only dream of. Simonai Santiago, a sophomore at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, became the first in her family to go to college. Santiago, an Afro-Latina from Lawrence, heard about the early college initiative during her junior year at Lawrence High School and was intrigued. “They told us about this program where you could get a foot in college,” Santiago said. She said her mother had instilled in her since she was a child the goal of going to college, but the question of how loomed large.
She quickly signed up for early college and took several classes in her high school’s partner institution, Merrimack College, including Introduction to Biology and Calculus. “My high school didn’t even offer a biology class, so my only real learning experience in biology was from Merrimack,” said Santiago, 19, who is majoring in health studies. She also said that taking courses at Merrimack gave her confidence to be assertive and showed her how to conduct herself professionally in a college setting.
The question remains whether Beacon Hill will go all-in for early college. The state has been slowly increasing the funds allocated to early college, from $2.5 million last fiscal year to $3 million currently. For the fiscal 2022 budget, the state’s board of higher education recommends doubling the funding to $6.4 million. And state Representative Jeff Roy of Franklin plans to file a bill that will set up an office of early college programs. “Massachusetts has the highest proportion of jobs that require a post-secondary education, at 72 percent,” Roy said.
And yet, achievement gaps by race, ethnicity, and income in college completion rates remain wide. Even when Black and Latino public high school graduates have test scores similar to their white peers’, they are less likely to earn college degrees and make as much money. It’s why equity-minded policies like early college need to reach a larger number of students. It would cost the state around $20 million to grow the program meaningfully and serve about 16,000 participants. That’s not an unreasonable figure, particularly at a time when community colleges in the state — most of which participate in early college — are seeing dramatic drops in enrollment of first-year Black and Latino students.
“Early college gives people like me an opportunity to show that we are more than capable to go to college,” Santiago said. A larger investment would capture the imagination of more students like her, and with it, a commitment to equity and the economic future of the Commonwealth.