Graduation rates are on the rise, but are students prepared for life after high school?

High school graduation rates have continued to climb in Massachusetts, reaching a 10-year high according to the latest data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2016, more than 87 percent of high school students graduated in four years and, while achievement gaps persist, efforts to support all students in getting a diploma are having an impact. All state-designated student subgroups saw an increase in graduation rates last year. Rates among high needs students increased to 79 percent, up from 74 percent in 2012.

But while more and more students receive diplomas each year, many go off to college unprepared for the academic and non-academic challenges that accompany life on a college campus. Thirty percent of Massachusetts public school students require developmental—or remedial—courses when enrolling in the state’s public colleges and universities. That means students are spending valuable time and money on courses that won’t count toward a degree. Success in college not only requires academic readiness, but also perseverance, independence, and resourcefulness. Without preparation and support, many students leave college when challenges arise. Only 46 percent of Massachusetts community college students and 56 percent of Massachusetts state university students graduate in 6 years.

We need to do more to address this transition from high school to college. Instead of helping college students catch up on content they should have learned in high school, we should be allowing high school students to tackle college-level learning. Nothing can prepare students for higher education like the actual college experience.

This approach, known as early college, allows students to take college courses while still in high school and earn credit for both. Our research on early college designs found that by getting a head start on college, students can reduce the time and cost of getting a degree, get acquainted with expectations and cultural norms of college campuses, and identify skill gaps that can be addressed before they start paying tuition. This experience can also make college more accessible for students who don’t think of themselves as college-bound.  All this leads to a smoother transition and higher rates of college persistence. Eighty-six percent of early college graduates who enroll in college stay for a second year, compared to 72 percent of all college students nationally.

Early college programs are finding success throughout the state. One promising example is a partnership between the Pathways Early College Innovation High School in Gardner and Mount Wachusett Community College. The program gives students from 23 districts the chance to take courses on the Mount Wachusett campus, earning a high school diploma and an associate’s degree simultaneously. The program recruits a largely low-income, first-generation college-going population that might not attend college without this opportunity.

Early college programs like this may soon be getting more state support and recognition. A bill making its ways through the State House, An Act relative to early college high schools, calls for the creation of a state early college designation for programs that meet certain criteria. Legislators will also be seeking state funding for these designated Massachusetts Early College Schools. This would help to spread programs like the one at Mount Wachusett and give more students access to tuition-free early college experiences.

These programs can eliminate the common barriers to college enrollment and graduation like insufficient academic preparation, lack of “college knowledge,” and rising costs, providing Massachusetts with the ability to increase the size and diversity of the college-going population. This is an important next step in creating a system that provides every child with the opportunity for success after graduation.

The four-year high school graduation rate is one key indicator the Rennie Center uses to assess progress in our education system. To learn about other indicators and look at progress over time or outcomes for different student groups, check out our interactive data dashboard