It’s a question that looms large at this stage of education reform: How can the Commonwealth help more kids earn a college degree? That’s a particular challenge for low-income students, who are less likely to enroll in the first place and more prone to drop out when they hit an academic bump.
One approach that has shown real promise is exposing students to college courses, and the college experience, while they are still in high school. Around the country, early college programs boost students’ interest in college and give them a head start on course work. The average participant accrues a semester’s worth of college credits by the time she or he graduates from high school.
Participating high school students usually do preparation work as high school freshmen and sophomores and then take college courses at a partner institution during their junior and senior years, courses that also satisfy their high school requirements. The experience helps familiarize them with college work and study habits, giving them that all-important confidence that they can succeed as college students. The credits they accumulate can be applied toward a degree, saving them money and time. Successful programs also acquaint students with various career options and give them a clear course pathway toward their career goals.
Currently in Massachusetts, about 44 percent of students who are not economically disadvantaged earn a postsecondary credential within six years of high school graduation, compared with only about 15 percent of low-income students who do so. Early college programs have the potential to increase those numbers dramatically, however. One national study found that early college programs eliminated the college-degree-attainment gap between minority and nonminority, while significantly reducing the gap between low-income and non-low-income students.
Currently there are about 27 such programs in Massachusetts, serving about 2,400 students. All 15 of the state’s community colleges participate to one degree or another, as do several state universities. But though Massachusetts tops the nation in many aspects of education, this is not one. Instead, it’s an area where California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, New York, Washington, and Ohio are leading the way.
“There is no question that many high school students can take these courses,” says Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and a fan of the early college idea. “The only question is, how do you bring it to scale and keep it high quality?”
A study by the consulting firm Parthenon-EY says a reasonable goal would be for 4,000 participating early college students in each of the four high-school grades, with most of the actual college-course taking occurring when they are juniors and seniors. Such a program would cost between $700 to $900 more per student per year, with total annual costs in the range of $17 million to $21 million.
The Parthenon-EY report estimates that an expanded program could get the state about 20 percent of the way toward its goal of adding another 10,000 residents a year who have a post-high-school credential, while also helping narrow the opportunity gap.
Massachusetts has made big strides in improving K-12 education. But more needs to be done here to close the college opportunity gap. Recognizing the promise of this concept, the state boards of Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education have created a new joint committee to focus on early college programs. It’s an idea that should interest high school and college educators, as well as business leaders eager for a college-credentialed workforce. As Beacon Hill policy makers look for a reasonably priced way to close the college opportunity gap, early college should be high on their agenda.