Expanding Access to Early College
By Jim Peyser

Jim Peyser Headshot

For many high school students, college and career can seem like distant destinations in an uncertain future. This is particularly true for students without parents or mentors who have already traveled the path; these students are often unaware of the opportunities in front of them, and they doubt their own ability to succeed. A promising approach to changing this dynamic is early college.

Early colleges are more than just dual enrollment, whereby a high school student—typically someone who is already on track to higher education—takes a college-level course for both high school and college credit. Rightly conceived, early colleges are collaborations between high schools and colleges to create structured pathways for a diverse set of students, including students who may not have previously been on a college track, to follow throughout high school and into college. Early colleges set expectations up-front for post-secondary education, while providing supports and experiences to build confidence and ensure success. According to a 2015 study by the Rennie Center, “only 14 percent of early college participants needed remedial work in their first year of college, compared to 23 percent of students nationally.” Also, a 2013 study by the American Institutes of Research found that early college students were significantly more likely to earn a college degree than comparison students (25% vs. 5%).

Typically, early colleges adopt a particular academic theme, in order to provide programmatic coherence and facilitate alignment with college curriculum and standards. Increasingly, this has meant a focus on STEM. Equally important, early colleges seek to establish connections between academic subjects and the world of work, in order to better engage students through the hands-on application of their classroom learning and to prepare them for real job opportunities in their communities. Making early college a career pathway requires a deep and sustained partnership with local employers, who can help design curriculum, provide mentorship for students, and offer workplace learning experiences.

A high priority of the Board of Higher Education, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the STEM Advisory Council is to expand the number of students who are enrolled in early college programs, specifically those that support career pathways in STEM fields.

"By better integrating Connecting Activities, Dual Enrollment, and STEM Starter Academies, we can leverage public and private dollars to create new early college programs and take this initiative to larger scale across the Commonwealth."

We are fortunate that Massachusetts already has several high-performing early college models to learn from, along with non-profit organizations and foundations that are national leaders in the field. In addition, we have a number of existing programs and resources that are already addressing pieces of the puzzle. For example, by better integrating Connecting Activities, Dual Enrollment, and STEM Starter Academies, we can leverage public and private dollars to create new early college programs and take this initiative to larger scale across the Commonwealth.

Early college alone is hardly the answer to the challenges of college access and completion, nor is it a silver bullet to prepare students to be career-ready and to be active and engaged citizens. Nevertheless, our administration is committed to advancing early college programs as part of an effective and scalable strategy for ensuring more students are prepared to succeed in higher education and the workplace.