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LAWRENCE — The high school juniors and seniors recently sat in a Northern Essex Community College class, excited to become doctors, nurses, and medical assistants. But first, they faced years of schooling and difficult textbook readings.
“Many of you said you don’t like to read — I’ve been there,” said professor Kathy Hudson, asking how they’d tackle a 125-page chapter on pulse, temperature, and blood pressure.
“You break it up,” a student answered. Another replied: “Put your phone away.”
The class, “Learning Strategies for Success in Health Care Careers,” is part of the Massachusetts Early College Initiative, which aims to help high school students from low-income families and communities of color earn free college credits and receive support, making higher education more attainable. Launched in 2017, Massachusetts’ program now includes 4,500 students or 1.8 percent of high schoolers, but the state’s share of students enrolled still lags behind other states such as Texas and North Carolina.
Seemingly everyone from school superintendents to Governor Charlie Baker agrees that Massachusetts’ program should grow, but a debate swirls around how much the state should spend on expansion. Baker’s administration recently proposed a $7.3 million increase, to total $18.3 million next year, though advocates are calling for more. A legislative bill would create a program trust fund with public dollars and donations from businesses clamoring for a more skilled, more diverse workforce.
“Massachusetts boasts about being number one in education throughout the country,” said Representative Jeff Roy, a Franklin Democrat and the bill’s author. “The fact that in 2022 we’re serving only 4,500 students is disappointing because we all know that college and other post-secondary opportunities are great springboards and equalizers for all students.”
In Massachusetts, fewer than one-fourth of Black, Latino, and low-income students graduate college six years after high school, compared to half of white and 56 percent of non-low-income students.
Early college can change that, advocates say; 61 percent of participants are Black or Latino and half are from low-income families. One state analysis found that 76 percent of students who attended early college enrolled in higher education within six months of completing high school, a key predictor of graduation, compared to 55 percent of their high school peers.
Massachusetts’ program is too young to show effects on college graduation, but national research found early college students are more likely to receive university diplomas than their high school classmates.
The Massachusetts Alliance for Early College, a coalition of schools, businesses, and education advocates, is calling for a tenfold increase, to 45,000 students, in five years. That could significantly increase the number of students of color graduating from college, the alliance said, and could ultimately cost about $50 million per year.
“There is a moral imperative to grow early college, this thing we know works,” said Erika Giampetro, the alliance’s executive director.
Shaving off college credits in high school can save students money. Three years after leaving Lawrence High, Mariel Bloise, 20, an aspiring physician’s assistant and Dominican immigrant, plans to graduate next fall from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a bachelor’s in biology. After graduating high school, Bloise received a free year at Northern Essex Community College through the Promise program, funded largely by private donors, to complete her associate degree. Otherwise, Bloise said, she planned to work for years, and her dream could have been derailed.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today in my professional life if it wouldn’t have been for that opportunity,” Bloise said.
Critics say the program, while laudable, is touted as a panacea for inequities in college completion but doesn’t adequately address the root problem of college affordability.
“By not grappling with the hard questions, we take the relatively simple way,” said Tracy O’Connell Novick, a Worcester School Committee member. “When I see, for example, the governor push it, someone who has other policy levers, that’s what worries me. ... Have we tried making community colleges free?”
Other critics say businesses should contribute more to such programs, as they stand to reap workforce benefits. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said companies already are stepping up: State Street last year donated $1.3 million to four programs in Quincy and Boston, and Charlestown High School’s program is supported by JP Morgan Chase, Liberty Mutual, and SAP.
Unlike other states with early college programs, Massachusetts does not guarantee funding every year in state law; money instead is reliant on fluctuating appropriations by the Legislature and governor.
Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said Baker, who is not running for reelection, sees early college as “one of his signature initiatives.” He said the state aims to grow the program to enroll 12.5 percent of high school students, or roughly 35,000 students, by 2027, and funding would need to increase, though currently, it is sufficient.
“It’s not like you stand it up overnight and then suddenly it’s full-scale,” Peyser said. “We do have some concerns about the long-term operating revenue.”
The initiative has grown at different rates across the state’s 42 early-college programs, with the lack of guaranteed funding a major issue cited by schools. The state requires programs to target students historically underrepresented in colleges to earn at least 12 credits, or one college semester, but many offer the chance for more. Most programs are in predominantly low-income school districts. Worcester runs the largest program, with 753 students; Lynn enrolls 450, Lawrence serves 261, and Boston has 179 students.
The state offers grants to schools and reimburses colleges $405 per three-credit course, but colleges say it’s not enough — they typically charge $1,000 per course, or more. (The Baker administration proposed raising the reimbursement to $450 next year.)
“That award is supposed to be enough to pay for the class, the books, the mentors’ support, but it doesn’t stretch far enough,” said Mary Jo Marion, assistant vice president for urban affairs at Worcester State University. “We find ourselves hustling within our own institutions trying to get additional resources.”
While Lawrence and Worcester serve 8 and 10 percent of their high school students in early college, Boston only enrolls 1 percent. Boston officials said they’re planning to expand early college, but funding and logistics are bigger hurdles in a large district.
“The size of these school districts is very different,” said Drew Echelson, deputy superintendent of academics. “We have a lot of work to do as a system; we own that.”
Boston offers early college through Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges at three high schools: Dearborn STEM Academy, Charlestown High, and Madison Park Vocational Technical High School. Fenway, New Mission, and East Boston high schools will be next to launch programs, officials said. Course offerings include computer science, engineering, health sciences, and business.
Boston officials said they could grow more with dedicated funding, as the state covers less than 20 percent of the $600,000 it costs schools, on average, to run early college. Officials said that programs often need donations, but many schools lack the staff to fund-raise.
Regardless of how programs start, students say they’re grateful. Rebecka Monta, 17, a Lawrence High senior and Haitian immigrant, said she feels well-prepared to start nursing school next year with one year of college credits.
“Nursing school is no joke,” Monta said. “The fact that [my professor] is teaching me methods to help me succeed in the future motivates me to keep going.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.