As the coronavirus pandemic threatens to widen college completion gaps, advocates say the present moment calls for greater state investments in early college programs.
Those programs, which give students a chance to take courses for college credit before receiving their high school diploma, provide a key strategy for addressing preexisting and pandemic-exacerbated struggles related to college affordability and access, observers say.
The pandemic’s economic impact further has fueled fears over increasing affordability struggles, and concerns over possible learning loss in the past year have some observers worried that students might fall behind in their “college readiness.”
Under that backdrop, early college has the potential to play the role of “a great equalizer” for students, said Manny Cruz, advocacy director for Latinos for Education. Programs seek to build students’ confidence and arm them with credits that will allow them to pay less in tuition to graduate.
“We’ve seen the return on investment with early college for our students,” Cruz told The Eagle. “When we’re thinking about early college and where we’re at, we need to think a little bit more about the pathways that we offer and whether or not we can go a little deeper.”
The state’s Early College Initiative, which began with five designated programs in 2018, has shown some promise.
Graduates of the state’s early college programs enrolled in college at a 76 percent rate, according to 2020 state data explored in a paper released in April from the MassINC Polling Group. That exceeds the 55 percent rate of their peers who did not participate in early college and the 56 percent rate for high school students across the state.
Two-thirds of the students enrolled in those programs identify as Black or Latinx, two identities that are underrepresented among students at higher education institutions. Early college programs also serve students who are considered low-income and students who would be the first in their family to attend college at greater rates than the overall student population.
The state expects about 4,000 students to enroll in the 23 designated programs for the 2021-22 year. While none of those programs is in Berkshire County, local programs pursue similar goals.
At Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, the Bridge to College and dual enrollment programs give high school students “a great opportunity to challenge themselves a little bit and get a taste of what college is like,” said Beth Lapierre, coordinator of enrollment services at BCC.
Enrollment in those programs — high school seniors can take a free course during the academic year — increased from 385 students in 2019-20 to 562 students in 2020-21, said BCC President Ellen Kennedy.
Each high school in the county has sent a student through the program, and the college works closely with superintendents and guidance counselors, Lapierre added. Many home-school students also participate.
About 35 percent of students who participate in those programs at Berkshire Community College enroll full time at the college, Kennedy said, and more are thought to transfer their credits to four-year institutions.
“It’s a way to discover that college is indeed a possibility and a pathway to a different life than they may be planning for themselves,” Kennedy said. “Helping them do that continues to expand and strengthen the Massachusetts economy.”
The early college model used by Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington differs in that students become enrolled as college students upon completing 10th grade or 11th grade, said Provost and Vice President John Weinstein. Weinstein also has worked in the Bard High School Early College network, which, across eight schools, uses public school money to provide $30 million a year worth of college credits at no cost to students.
Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the first early college in the U.S., inspired early college efforts across the nation — Texas and North Carolina have developed especially robust programs over the past two decades — by demonstrating that younger students were capable of completing work beyond the traditional high school curriculum.
In fall 2019, Simon’s Rock began a new partnership to allow Mount Everett High School students to take courses for high school and college credit. About 25 students participated in that program before it went on pause because of the pandemic, but a new grant from the state will allow that program to integrate a college advising component this summer, Weinstein said.
The partnership is somewhat unique in that it is between a private college and a public high school, while most partnerships are between public colleges and public high schools. But, tapping into the resources of private institutions could be key for Massachusetts to expand early college, Weinstein said.
He added that lessons from Simon’s Rock and other early college efforts could help the state reach “a better normal” for education coming out of the pandemic.
“If there’s concern about making up lost learning from the pandemic,” Weinstein said, “we might look at what early college curricula and teaching approaches show us how we can forge ahead meeting multiple needs at once and recognizing that there often is a lot of overlap with later high school and early college years.”
Early college, though, is not as simple as throwing high school-age students into college courses. Rather, it requires tailoring teaching and offering support systems, such as tutoring, that fit students’ needs, observers said.
Cruz and Kennedy signed on to a recent letter that cited pandemic impacts in asking for greater state investment in early college.
In its budget debate, the House accepted amendments that would meet the requested funding levels.
From fall 2019 to fall 2020, enrollments dropped 11.3 percent at Massachusetts community colleges, and 7.7 percent at state colleges and universities, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said at a recent panel.
Philanthropic contributions, including $10,000 that the Rotary Club of Pittsfield contributed to cover books and educational materials for high school students enrolled at BCC in the spring, have helped to support existing programs. But, more state dollars, observers say, are needed to provide support and expansions that meet the moment.