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An early-college program targeted at underrepresented students in Massachusetts is showing strong results -- even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New data on the state's Early College Initiative show that students who enrolled in the program in high school were more likely to earn college credits while in high school, more likely to complete financial aid applications and more likely to enroll in college than their peers.

Pierre Lucien, a fellow with Harvard University's Strategic Data Project and a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Education, prepared the data for the state's Early College Joint Committee. The data were released Wednesday during a webinar hosted by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and MassINC, a statewide think tank.

The goal of the early-college program is to help reduce the state's education equity gaps and increase college completion rates among students of color, first-generation college students and those from low-income backgrounds.

"Black and Hispanic students are earning postsecondary degrees at half the rate of white students, and the gap is growing," said Juana Matias, chief operating officer of MassINC. "A lot of work needs to be done in our state, especially given the fact that we have a knowledge-based economy."

The state's early-college program allows high school students to take career-oriented college classes for free and earn college credit, Matias said. They get academic and guidance supports, which many students emphasize as the most important part of their academic success, she said. Because the program doesn't cost anything, it also reduces some of the financial burden on students and their families of paying for college.

National studies have shown that these programs can double postsecondary attainment, Matias said. The states with the best programs see a return on investment of 15 to one.

"No other postsecondary initiative comes close," she said.

Beyond these statistics, local high schools have also seen how this program can qualitatively affect students, said Mary Bourque, former superintendent at Chelsea Public Schools and director of government affairs at the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

"We saw immediately by end of the first year and each year thereafter that students who had the early-college experience were more confident, more willing to take academic risks," she said. "Early college is game-changing."

In the 2019 academic year, 1,140 students enrolled in the program in Massachusetts. It grew to 2,323 students this past academic year, and it's estimated to grow again to 3,500 in the 2021 academic year.

But the growth so far is not much compared to the state's goal to eventually enroll at least 16,000 students in the program, Matias said. At the current rate, Massachusetts wouldn't hit that number until 2032.

The majority of students who enrolled in the program in 2019 were Black, Latinx or from another underrepresented population, according to Lucien's research. The majority of high schools that participated were also majority-minority schools.

The results so far are promising. About 85 percent of early-college students earned three college credits with grades of C-plus or above, and nearly half of them earned 12 college credits, Lucien said.

Collectively, students in the program earned 5,088 credits in 2019, giving them a collective potential savings of $1 million, he said.

Lucien compared the results of students who participated in early college with students of matching demographics who did not participate in the program. Early-college students also completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at higher rates when compared to their peers in the same school and at other schools statewide. They also completed MassCore, a state-recommended program intended to align course work in high school with college and workforce expectations, at higher rates than their peers.

When broken down by race and ethnicity, Black and Latinx students in the early-college program outperformed their peers who were not in the program even more significantly, Lucien said.

Graduates of early college enrolled in college at a rate of 76 percent, compared to their school peers who did not participate in early college, who enrolled at rate of 55 percent, and high school students statewide, who enrolled at a rate of 56 percent. The majority also attended college in state, Lucien said.

"It's not only closing opportunity gaps, but it's also safeguarding the commonwealth from brain drain," he said.

​The program is also continuing to grow, with both more schools and students signing up for it.

Students in the program may also be faring better than their peers in the pandemic, Lucien said. The rate at which early-college students completed the FAFSA this year was similar to their completion rate in 2019. Meanwhile, there was a decrease in FAFSA completions by peers not participating in the early-college program, likely due to the pandemic.

"This program is more pandemic-resistant than many things," said Chris Gabrieli, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

While the goal of state education officials for the past few decades has been to get students ready for college and career, this program helps students succeed in those areas, he said.

State funding for the program in fiscal year 2021 is expected to be flat, according to Katherine Craven, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The program received $2.5 million for start-up grants and administrative costs in 2019 and 2020, Craven said, adding that the next budget cycle is going to be tough due to the pandemic.

"We need to make clear that this is the kind of thing we cannot put on the back burner," Gabrieli said.

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