The start of college can feel daunting—selecting courses, developing time management and study skills, and navigating an unfamiliar environment. For some, this shift can prompt students to bow out of college altogether. And for too many other students, the idea of college is ruled out well before it starts - particularly students who don’t think college is “for them.” That’s why the Early College and Early College Promise programs in Massachusetts aim to bridge the gap between high school and college to make college success a reality for all students by providing a clear pathway for students that saves them time and money towards a degree.
Early college in Massachusetts
In 2016, the boards of K12 and higher education came together to co-create the State’s designated Early College Program in grades 9-12. Five years later, we now have 48 designated programs representing 58 high schools and 26 colleges and projected to serve 7,800 students in the fall, two thirds of whom are students of color and more than half of whom are from low income homes.
The Early College Promise is a pilot program that takes the Early College model one step further, allowing students in a handful of sites to defer their high school diploma for an extra year to take a full course load of college classes from schools like Salem State while continuing to benefit from their high school supports, including their familiar and committed advisors and counselors. When the initiative reaches maturity, students will be able to graduate high school with an associate’s degree or 60 transferable credits toward a four year degree. And just like the Commonwealth’s early college program, Early College Promise is optional and offered at no cost to students and their families.
Even though we know that the fifth year model has been highly effective in states like Michigan, Colorado, California, and North Carolina, we’re starting with a pilot in Massachusetts. We’re testing the model, gauging impact, and making improvements, with hope that the results will be stellar and the model will be approved to scale. As with traditional Early College in the Commonwealth, we want to ensure the state’s resources are focused where they are having the most impact.
Why is college so important?
College is about access—access to jobs that provide family sustaining wages, social capital, and the lives of dignity and civic engagement that a college degree so often enables.
In Massachusetts, we are at a critical window of opportunity for college success equity. If you’re a white student in our state, you have a 50% chance of having a college degree within six years of your high school graduation; on the other hand, if you’re Black, Latino, or from a low-income community, your odds are 20%. The numbers don’t lie— college degrees are not being distributed equitably and we need to change that. That’s why sites who participate in our early college programs are required to explicitly but not exclusively focus on students who are historically underrepresented on college campuses.
College success rates also affect the economic prosperity of our state. MassINC projects a reduction of 200,000 educated workers by 2030. Meaningful expansion of Early College and Early College Promise will be a powerful and needed intervention.
While taking college courses is a core component of Early College and Early College Promise, the embedded community, supports, and sense of belonging is the difference-maker. This includes helping students build their self-advocacy skills and familiarity with college systems, sharing best practices for working with professors, helping students to find affinity groups, and sharing tips for leveraging resources like a writing center or peer tutoring. Early College Promise is intentional about making these resources known so that students can acclimate to a college environment with ease. Students not only enjoy friendly faces from their high school but are also assigned to a cohort of fellow Early College Promise students. This intentional design recognizes students’ need for a shared experience while still allowing them to flourish as they build their identity and increase their independence.
Our goal at the MA Alliance for Early College is to close one quarter of the college success equity gap by race and income and to benefit thousands of others through the scaling of high quality Early College to 45,000 students. And the Early College Promise pilot gives us an opportunity to test if an extra year meaningfully amplifies outcomes. We expect to see that it does, and hope to lift the current pilot’s enrollment cap in a couple of years so more students can benefit.
These goals are highly ambitious because they have to be - the nature of the problems Early College seeks to address are critical. But the goals are also feasible, and that’s because of the diverse ecosystem of support that continues to elevate this work. The MA legislature, the Healey-Driscoll administration, our education board chairs and Commissioners, college presidents, district superintendents, school committees, program leaders, supportive ecosystem stakeholders, families and students have been key partners making this work possible and expanding high quality Early College opportunities for students across the Commonwealth. Key philanthropic partners, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, and State Street Foundation are also committing significant support and leadership. This powerful collaboration combined with the state’s enabling policies and structures lay the foundation for this program to grow and thrive across the state.
At the Alliance, we’re committed to supporting Early College Promise pilot sites in the yeoman’s work they are doing. These courageous leaders are doing the hard work necessary to change systems and structures to make good on a promise of student opportunity and success. We are committed to sharing learnings across our sites to increase the likelihood of success. Since no two early college programs are exactly alike, it’s important to share the wealth of their discoveries in increasing college readiness. Together we can make the promise of early college a reality so more students can access and realize college success over the coming years and hopefully decades.
Erika Giampietro is Executive Director, Massachusetts Alliance for Early College