Board of education looking to expand early college programs

MALDEN, Mass. (State House News Service) – State education officials next month will decide whether to move ahead on an early college initiative that could serve up to 16,000 students and potentially help raise overall college completion levels and narrow opportunity gaps among students.

In January, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Board of Higher Education launched an exploration into early college high schools — schools that incorporate credit-bearing college coursework into the high school experience. A draft report presented to the elementary and secondary board Tuesday recommended three strategies for building a statewide early college initiative.

The study suggested developing a state-authorized designation to ensure that early college programs are free and open to all students and have relevant connections to careers and provide student support; providing additional funding through a standing grant committee; and targeting the program to serve up to 4,000 underserved students per high school grade.

The report said such an early college program could help meet state goals of increasing college completion, potentially driving 2,000 of the 10,000 additional completions per year required to meet a Department of Higher Education goal of ensuring that 60 percent of residents between the ages of 25 and 34 obtain postsecondary credentials.

Several early college programs exist throughout the state already, including partnerships between Mount Wachusett Community College and local districts that serve accelerated students; a program at Springfield Technical Community College that focuses on low-income males of color; and a Marlborough High School program that credentials high school teachers to offer college courses linked to science, technology, engineering and math.

Board member Margaret McKenna, the former president of Lesley and Suffolk universities, said she was “very enthusiastic” about the idea of expanding early college opportunities.

“There aren’t community colleges on every corner, so we do need to think about doing things differently,” she said.

Less than half of Massachusetts students — 45 percent — graduate high school, enroll immediately in college or community college without a need for remediation, and continue their postsecondary studies into the second year, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics. Early college is seen as one strategy to boost that number, by engaging students sooner with college work.

Officials have proposed various measures to strengthen links between high schools and colleges as a way to make it more affordable to earn a degree.

Gov. Charlie Baker, when running for office in 2014, proposed directing the Board of Higher Education to invite proposals from career and technical high schools to grant associate degrees, either directly or in partnerships with colleges.

In a June Department of Higher Education report outlining strategies that could help boost degree production by public colleges and universities, Education Secretary Jim Peyser said it was a high priority to “expand the number of students who are enrolled in early college programs, specifically those that support career pathways in STEM fields.”

But education officials last December, in a report on the state’s early college landscape, identified what they described as a “funding challenge,” writing that there are only two dedicated state funding sources for early college programming — the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative, for students with disabilities, and the Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Partnership.

The Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Partnership provides funding for eligible high school students to take free or reduced-cost college-level courses at public institutions and earn credit toward both their high school diploma and a future college degree. The report says it has “never provided funding that would allow students to participate at any large scale.”

The report estimates an annual cost of $700 to $900 per student, including instructional costs, transportation and support personnel.

The boards in January will be asked to approve “moving ahead with a game plan” that would include “raising funds, identifying funding sources, securing fiscal support for the initiative and launching an application process for interested parties,” Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said.

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