The state is more than doubling its investment in early high school programs

More students like Marte will have a chance at college thanks to the Massachusetts Early College Initiative, launched in 2017 to help high school students from low-income families and communities of color access college courses in high school.

The state is now more than doubling its investment in the elementary school, which is expected to expand by 2,500 students this school year — about 50 percent to about 7,500. The state’s $52.7 billion spending plan includes $19 million to expand early college programs for Massachusetts schools.

Early college programs allow high school students to earn college credits while earning a high school diploma, and some students earn enough to earn an associate’s degree.

Erica Giampietro, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Early College, said the additional funds in the state budget put Massachusetts on track to meet its goal of having 45,000 students enrolled in early college programs by 2027.

“To have this kind of marriage where students and families want it and our leaders at the state level want it is rare and it’s a real opportunity and it’s an opportunity we just can’t pass up,” Giampietro said.

While supporters say it’s a good start, they note that Massachusetts’ program serves about 2 percent of all high school students, and the state’s enrollment rate lags other states such as North Carolina and Texas.

But early college programs are in high demand in Massachusetts. The state currently has 50 high schools with early college programs, and another 28 schools have written the state letters of intent to pursue certification for college entry-level programs beginning in fall 2023, according to the State Education Executive Office.

Among students entering college entry-level programs in the fall of 2021, 60 percent were black or Hispanic, and more than half were from low-income families.

“In Massachusetts, if you’re a white student, there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll get a college degree within six years of graduating high school. If you’re black or Hispanic, it’s 20 percent,” Giampietro said. “That’s the gap that we’re really focused on trying to change.”

Janicka Jean Nordeus was looking for an opportunity to boost her college credit before starting her freshman year at Fenway High School last fall, so she decided to enroll in Wentworth Institute of Technology’s early learning program.

Gene Nordeus, 17, said having these programs in schools is a big part of helping students figure out what they want to do before going to college and saving them thousands of dollars.

Janichka Jean Nordeus, 17, is a senior at Fenway High School participating in Wentworth’s Early College Pathways program.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

Her college experience not only helped her pursue her dream of working in the medical field, but also helped her find an interest in business management.

“When I entered my freshman year, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and that’s a problem. That’s a problem that the college starter program solved right at my school,” said Jean Nordeus.

$19 million will pay colleges and universities that enroll students in the college a tuition rate of $150 per credit and provide grants of up to $50,000 per year to start college or expand high school programs.

“Students who participate in these programs pay nothing, and this is a significant savings for those students,” said Representative Jeff Roy, who has worked closely with early college advocates. “The more money we have in the program, the more students we can serve.”

Roy said he and Rep. Kate Lipper-Garabedian would push legislation they proposed last year to create a framework so programs don’t “die with a change in administration.” Massachusetts law does not guarantee annual funding; it should be restored by legislators.

They also want the state to staff a centralized college and high school office responsible for overseeing programs such as college entry and advanced placement.

“We really wanted to have these programs in all 351 communities across the Commonwealth,” Roy said.

Marthe said she didn’t realize the extent of her learning gaps until she started the program, but had support all along the way. The professors would go to the high school and spend two and a half hours with her each week working on her college-level work. After graduating from the program, she was also one of 10 academy students to receive a full scholarship to Merrimack College.

“Hearing that early college is closing the gap and opening up opportunities for students opened my eyes to so many things.”

The A big gap examines educational inequality in Boston and across the state. Sign up to receive our newsletterand send ideas and tips to [email protected].

Adria Watson can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.

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