There is a burning question on the mind of virtually every high school student: “Why am I here?” Step inside a vocational-technical school in Massachusetts, and chances are you’ll see students engaged in both their academic and technical studies because they’re applying classroom knowledge to meaningful, real-world problems and projects and because they know they’re on a path to their future — one which they have chosen.
Beginning in 2017, the Baker administration launched two parallel initiatives to bring this sense of purposefulness to traditional high school students by establishing Early College and early career Innovation Pathways. Each provides quality educational opportunities to deepen learning and engagement while strengthening college and career readiness. Both options are focused on improving outcomes for students who are underrepresented in higher education while fueling a more diverse workforce in high-demand industries. These two pathways offer students across the state and in over half of urban districts meaningful choices that align with their interests and goals while preparing them for life after high school.
Students proceed through Early College as part of a cohort of their peers, earning at least 12 college credits at no cost. Importantly, every Early College student develops a college and career plan — an updated road map for guiding each student through high school and beyond — in close consultation with a trained adviser.
There are now 50 high schools with state-approved Early College, in partnership with over 20 public and private colleges, currently enrolling about 5,400 students. Most Early College students come from low-income families and almost 60 percent are Black or Latino. Early College students have higher high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates than the state average. College-going rates for Early College students are more than 20 percentage points higher than their school peers.
While Early College is anchored by district-college partnerships, early career Innovation Pathways prioritize partnerships between high schools and local employers or workforce development boards.
Cohorts of Innovation Pathways students focus on career opportunities in broad industry sectors (rather than specific occupations, as in vocational programs), with an emphasis on work-based learning experiences and coursework aligned to industry-recognized credentials. Each course of study includes, at no cost to students, relevant technical and post-secondary classes in addition to a 100-hour internship or capstone project. Currently authorized industry sectors include information technology, business and financial services, health care, environmental and life sciences, and advanced manufacturing. As with Early College, every Innovation Pathway student has a college and career plan with ongoing advising.
There are nearly 150 approved Innovation Pathways programs in 60 high schools, currently serving over 2,600 students. Almost half of Innovation Pathways students are low income and about half are Black or Latino.
If current trends continue, it’s possible that up to 25 percent of all high school students will have the opportunity to participate in one of these pathways in the next five to six years, but only if there is a reliable revenue stream to support the programs.
State funding for these two initiatives comes through several budget line items, each requiring annual appropriation, with additional funds needed each year to enable growth.
To ensure high schools have adequate operating resources, then governor Charlie Baker proposed in 2019 adding a new enrollment category to the Chapter 70 funding formula for Early College and Innovation Pathways. This new category would increase a district’s Foundation Budget for each student enrolled in one of these pathway programs, in much the same way the state supports vocational-technical programs. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not yet enacted this critical reform.
Like vocational-technical programs, Early College and Innovation Pathways require incremental resources beyond what is typically spent for traditional high school instruction. The primary expense drivers include a school-based program manager, transportation to and from colleges and employers, and additional advising and academic supports. As more high school students take more college courses, more funding will also be required for the state’s dual-enrollment program to cover tuition and fees. Planning, startup, and scale-up grants will continue to be needed to support the launch of new programs.
The annual impact on the state budget for a significant expansion of Early College and Innovation Pathways would ultimately be about $100 million or about $1,500 per student.
Given the new resources that are expected to be spent in public education over the next few years, this would be a wise and strategic investment in transforming the high school experience for tens of thousands of students, who will no longer go to school just because they have to but because they want to.
James A. Peyser served as secretary of education from 2015 to 2022.