Schools and businesses want the early college curriculum dramatically expanded for underrepresented students — but Mass. will he?

“You break it,” replied one student. Another replied: “Put your phone away.”

The class, “Learning Strategies for Success in Health Care Careers,” is part of the Massachusetts Early College Initiative, which aims to help high school students from low-income families and communities of color earn free university credits and to receive support, make higher education more accessible. Launched in 2017, the Massachusetts program now includes 4,500 college students or 1.8% of high school students, but the share of students enrolled in the state still lags behind other states such as Texas and North Carolina.

Seemingly everyone from school principals to Gov. Charlie Baker agrees that the Massachusetts program should expand, but a debate swirls around how much the state should spend on expansion. The Baker administration recently proposed an increase of $7.3 million, for a total of $18.3 million. next year, although supporters are asking for more. A bill would create a trust fund for the program with public funds and donations from companies that are calling for a more skilled and diverse workforce.

“Massachusetts boasts of being number one in education in the entire country,” said Rep. Jeff Roy, a Franklin Democrat and author of the bill. “The fact that in 2022 we are only serving 4,500 students is disappointing, as we all know college and other post-secondary opportunities are great stepping stones and equalizers for all students. »

Professor Kathy Hudson teaches students at Lawrence High School about the health care career path at Northern Essex <a class=Community College.” class=”height_a width_full invisible width_full–mobile width_full–tablet-only” data-src=”×0/” data-srcset=”×0/ 1440w,×0/ 1280w,×0/ 1024w,×0/ 820w,×0/ 600w,×0/ 420w,×0/ 240w” bad-src=”×0/”/>
Professor Kathy Hudson teaches students at Lawrence High School about the health care career path at Northern Essex Community College.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In Massachusetts, less than a quarter of black, Latino and low-income students graduate from college six years after high school, compared to half of white students and 56% of non-low-income students.

Early college can change that, advocates say; 61% of participants are black or Latino and half are from low-income families. A state analysis found that 76% of students who attended university at the start enrolled in higher education within six months of finishing high school, a key predictor of graduation, compared to 55% of their high school friends.

Massachusetts program too young to show effects on college graduation, but national research found that early college students are more likely to receive college degrees than their high school classmates.

The Massachusetts Alliance for Early College, a coalition of schools, businesses and education advocates, is calling for a tenfold increase to 45,000 students in five years. It could dramatically increase the number of students of color graduating from college, the alliance said, and could ultimately cost about $50 million a year.

“There’s a moral imperative to grow up early in college, this thing that we know works,” said Erika Giampetro, executive director of the alliance.

Cutting college credits in high school can save students money. Three years after leaving Lawrence High, Mariel Bloise, 20, an aspiring physician assistant and Dominican immigrant, plans to graduate next fall from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a bachelor’s degree in biology. After graduating from high school, Bloise was given a free year at Northern Essex Community College through the To promise program, funded largely by private donors, to complete his associate degree. Otherwise, Bloise said, she planned to work for years and her dream might have been derailed.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today in my professional life without this opportunity,” Bloise said.

Students at Lawrence High School are taking health care career path classes at Northern Essex Community College as part of an early college program aimed at helping more students of color enroll and get their University diploma. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Critics say the program, while laudable, is touted as a panacea for inequities in college completion, but does not adequately address the fundamental problem of college affordability.

“By not tackling the tough questions, we’re taking the relatively easy route,” said Tracy O’Connell Novick, Worcester School Board Member. “When I see, for example, the governor pushing, someone who has other political levers, that’s what worries me. …Have we tried to make community colleges free?

Other critics say companies should contribute more to these programs because they are able to reap the benefits of the workforce. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said companies are already stepping up: State Street donated $1.3 million last year to four programs in Quincy and Boston, and Charlestown High School’s program is supported by JP Morgan Chase, Liberty Mutual and SAP.

Unlike other states with early college programs, Massachusetts does not guarantee funding each year in state law; rather, the money depends on the fluctuating appropriations of the legislature and the governor.

Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said Baker, who is not running for office, views the start of college as “one of his signature initiatives.” He said that the state aims to expand the program to enroll 12.5% ​​of secondary school students, or approximately 35,000 students, by 2027, and funding is expected to increase, although it is currently sufficient.

“It’s not like you do it overnight and all of a sudden it’s on a massive scale,” Peyser said. “We have some concerns about long-term operating income.”

The initiative has grown at different paces across the state’s 42 undergraduate programs, with a lack of guaranteed funding being a major issue cited by schools. The state requires programs to target historically underrepresented college students to earn at least 12 credits or one semester of college, but many offer the ability to earn more. Most programs cater primarily to low-income people School districts. Worcester runs the largest program, with 753 students; Lynn enrolls 450, Lawrence serves 261, and Boston has 179 students.

State offers grants to schools and reimburses colleges $405 per three-credit course, but colleges say it’s not enough – they usually charge $1,000 per course, or more. (The Baker administration has proposed raising the reimbursement to $450 next year.)

“This award is supposed to be enough to pay for the class, the books, the mentor support, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Mary Jo Marion, assistant vice president for urban affairs at Worcester State University. “We find ourselves jostling within our own institutions to try to get additional resources.”

While Lawrence and Worcester serve 8 and 10 percent of their high school students at the start of college, Boston enrolls only 1 percent. Boston officials said they plan to expand the first college, but funding and logistics are bigger hurdles in a large district.

“The size of these school districts is very different,” said Drew Echelson, assistant superintendent of academics. “We have a lot of work to do as a system; we own it.

Boston offers early college education through Bunker Hill and Roxbury Community Colleges at three high schools: Dearborn STEM Academy, Charlestown High, and Madison Park Vocational Technical High School. Fenway, New Mission and East Boston high schools will be next to launch programs, officials said. Courses offered include computer science, engineering, health sciences, and business.

Boston officials said they could expand further with dedicated funding because the state covers less than 20% of the $600,000 it costs schools, on average, to run the early years of the university. Officials said the programs often need donations, but many schools are understaffed to fundraise.

Students from Lawrence High School boarded a school bus at Northern Essex Community College which will take them back to their high school.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Regardless of how the programs begin, students say they are grateful. Rebecka Monta, 17, a Haitian immigrant from Lawrence High, said she feels well prepared to start nursing school next year with one year of college credit.

“Nursing school is no joke,” Monta said. “The fact that [my professor] teaches me methods to help me succeed in the future motivates me to keep going.

Naomi Martin can be reached at [email protected]

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