How to Launch an Early College Program

In many high-wage industries, a high school degree no longer prepares students to enter the workforce. By 2020, labor market analysts predict that 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Yet too many students are graduating from Massachusetts high schools underprepared for the rigors of higher education. Twenty-six 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 their time and money on courses that won’t count toward a degree.

Concerns about affordability or their ability to succeed in college coursework cause many students to drop out or not enroll in college at all. This challenge disproportionately affects students who are underrepresented in higher education, including students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, and students from low-income families.

Instead of helping college students catch up on curriculum they should have learned in high school, educators across the nation now recognize the value of exposing high schools students to college-level learning. One promising approach, known as early college, allows students to take college courses while still in high school and earn credit for both. Giving high school students an actual college experience equips them the habits of mind that lead to postsecondary success, and earning credits that count toward a degree makes college more affordable. 

As schools across state and the nation work to implement these early college programs, we are seeing promising results. Eighty-six percent of early college students who enroll in college as part of their postsecondary plans persist to their second year compared to 72 percent of all college students nationally.

Though Massachusetts schools lead the nation in many areas, we are falling behind states like Texas and North Carolina in scaling early college. But progress is being made. In 2016, Massachusetts established an early college designation process to expand access to these programs in schools across the Commonwealth.

To help more schools launch early college programs, we took a look at successful examples from across the state and nation and developed a hands-on guide to getting started. Our latest report, Early College Blueprint: A Guide to Getting Started on Early College in Massachusetts, is intended to help high school and college partners design and implement effective programs through research-based best practices and lessons learned from existing early college programs. The blueprint, which was created with generous support from the Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation, breaks the process down into four steps: preparing, designing, implementing, and evolving.

While other states have expanded early college by opening new schools designed for this model, most Massachusetts programs are the result of partnerships between existing institutions. So for this report we looked at how school districts and institutions of higher education have worked together to successfully launch programs. The report highlights partnerships between Chelsea High School and Bunker Hill Community College; Holyoke Public Schools and Westfield State University; Fitchburg Public Schools, Leominster Public Schools, and Mount Wachusett Community College; Lawrence Public Schools and Merrimack College; Lawrence Public Schools and Northern Essex Community College; Salem Public Schools and Salem State University; and Boston Public Schools and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

These programs are working. In Chelsea, for example, 294 students participated in early college during the 2017-2018 school year. The 180 participating seniors earned a combined 1,374 college credits, equaling 458 college courses. Cumulatively, these students saved $250,000 on tuition and $40,000 on textbooks. The early success that these students have experienced will make them more likely to persist through postsecondary education and ultimately earn a family-sustaining wage in a field of interest. Early college leaders at Chelsea Public Schools and Bunker Hill Community College recognize this success while continually seeking to improve their program. By 2021, the partners hope to graduate every Chelsea High School student with an associate degree and/or credential in addition to a high school diploma.

We hope this blueprint will help more high schools and institutions of higher education team up to launch early college programs and ultimately prepare students across the state for success in college, career, and life.