This photograph from Gov. Charlie Baker’s State of the Commonwealth address last month shows more than just happy college students in their sweatshirts. These students, from Northern Essex Community College and Merrimack College, are part of cohorts of students who have graduated from “early college” programs (with up to a year’s college credit) and successfully matriculated into a two- or four-year college. Recipients of the Lawrence Promise Scholarship at Northern Essex Community College and the Pioneer Scholarship at Merrimack College, these students are on track to graduate on time, and can serve as mentors and role models to young people in their families and in their neighborhoods—proof that college is a real possibility.
Why are these students so important?
The students in the picture, and graduates of similar programs, offer a chance to avoid a demographic crash that faces higher education nationwide (but hits hardest in New England). This is most strikingly laid out in Nathan Grawe’s book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which uses survey data and mathematical modeling to predict the future of higher education. For two-year institutions, regional four-year institutions and all but the top 50 colleges nationwide, the news in Grawe’s book is grim: The decline in childbirths in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-9 will reverberate into the 2020s and 2030s. This will lead to fewer high school graduates, and fewer students with the family background and finances to propel them into traditional college enrollment.
Grawe considers a full range of possibilities to counteract this curve, such as changes in state higher education policy, that could increase the proportion of students who might attend colleges, and reduce the racial gaps in groups attending college. In Grawe’s analysis, however, none of these policy tools will close the gap enough to save many higher education institutions from closing, or from a stark decline in students and revenue.
What can change the curve?
The Commonwealth can try to bend this curve by increasing the number of students who aspire to go to college, and who have the skills to enroll and graduate. One such intervention, which has the potential to scale to the state level, is early college programming, in which high school students are able to take college coursework during the K-12 experience, in order to learn to successfully navigate the college world. Through success in college classes, these students stop thinking of college as a possibility, and instead as something they know they can do.
Early college programs have been a success story in American education, raising enrollments and enhancing student outcomes. Early college programs can help low-income and underrepresented students gain access to higher education and be more successful students once they arrive to college full time, according to research by David R. Troutman, Aimee Hendrix-Soto, Marlena Creusere and Elizabeth Mayer in the University of Texas System.
Early college programs (high school students attending college courses on campus) have shown great impact on academic achievement of students, net return on investment, and graduation rates of participating students.
In successful programs and statewide efforts, students thrive in these programs, are more likely to attend college and are remarkably more successful once they get to campus full time. They are more likely to graduate on time than their peers who attend traditional high schools, and earn a higher GPA. Recent studies released by American Institutes of Research found the economic return of investment on early college programs to be $15 in benefit for every $1 investment; the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse recently certified the results of a random-assignment early college study that showed a positive impact in such key metrics as school attendance, number of school suspensions, high school graduation, college enrollment and earning a college credential.
New England has been a growing force in the early college field. Massachusetts now is home to at least 30 designated early college partnerships; Maine has created early college programs for its state four-year colleges, community college and maritime academy; and New Hampshire has launched a STEM-focused early college effort centered on career-technical education and the community college system. While these are far smaller than the efforts in Texas and North Carolina, they are making a positive impact and appealing to a broad range of families.
Scaling and expanding access
Early college programs have not been easy to expand or spread. First, like most successful policy interventions, they are hard to scale without losing the power of the model. The best early college programs are often about 400 students in size, run by dedicated instructors and leadership. Maintaining a size where each student can connect with at least one adult in the building is one of the keys to this work.
This model is hard to scale statewide, which is what would need to happen to have any meaningful impact on the downward curve of college applicants. Early college programs can also suffer from elitism. They can attract smart, ambitious, well-off students and families, leaving behind the populations that can be helped the most by the model. As college costs drive more behavior across the economic spectrum, middle-class and upper middle-class parents will see early college programs as a lifeline, and could seek out opportunities that had previously been designed for lower-income families. In my earlier work in Michigan, I saw programs start to fill up with the children of professors at the college housing the early college, as it was seen to be such a bargain.
However, as early college is embraced by new states and regions, policymakers are paying more attention to making sure that programs can grow, and can retain the characteristics that make the model so effective. As new programs are developed in Massachusetts, there is renewed emphasis on reaching the at-risk students who could be most helped by this intervention. With a push to help all students in a high school leave with some college credit, the impact of early college programs on student enrollment could counteract economic and social barriers to enrollment, moving whole cohorts of students into higher education.
In order for any of the above to have an impact on college enrollment a decade from now, state policy and spending will need to shift, investing in areas such as early college that can help students be successful in college from day one. Most importantly, early college programs and their impact would need broader recognition and support, and would need to be embraced by a wider range of K-12 and higher education leaders than have supported it to date. It might take today’s downward facing enrollment curve to get the attention of policymakers, who up until now have regarded early college with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. To save higher education in Massachusetts, we need more students up in the balcony, graduating from high school with college credit, ready to help their younger peers make the same good decisions.
Russ Olwell is a professor and associate dean in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.