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Clearing the Path to Higher Education

An early college initiative supports students — even in a pandemic
Graduation caps held in the air

An analysis of the new early college initiative in the state of Massachusetts shows promise as a means of addressing educational inequality — even in the middle of a pandemic that has notoriously heightened disparities in education and achievement.

The initiative was launched in 2018 and initially consisted of a cohort of eight programs in high-need, low-income districts. High school students were given the opportunity to earn college credit by completing college-level coursework, jumpstarting completion of a degree or certificate and saving both time and money.

While programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offer similar curricular college preparation, they can be inaccessible. Early college, on the other hand, is intentionally made available to a wider range of students from different academic backgrounds. This new initiative is explicitly guided by equity and access through:

  • recruiting and enrolling historically underrepresented students
  • admitting students without consideration of prior achievement

According to Pierre Lucien, a fellow at Harvard’s Strategic Data Project (SDP) and a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), a recent analysis of data collected by the program presents four striking results about college readiness among participating high school students, as compared to both their schoolmates and a comparison group:

  • Higher FAFSA completion rates suggest that participants intended to attend college. As of May 1, 2020, the rate at which program participants were completing their FAFSA was unchanged —students were still completing the FAFSA at the same rate as they were pre-pandemic. Their schoolmates were completing the FAFSA at lower rate. This finding could suggest that the intention of college was unaffected by the situation and that, barring the pandemic, rates of completion would otherwise have increased.
  • Higher rates of college preparedness as indicated by completion of the MassCore, a recommended program of study that aligns high school coursework with college and workforce expectations. 
  • More college credits earned. Participants also earned more college credit in high school. Researchers have linked early college credit attainment to not only enrollment in college but also persistence and retention. This finding suggests that students who participate in an early college program like this one are more likely to persist and be retained by higher education institutions.
  • Higher post-secondary enrollment within six months of high school graduation.


According to Lucien, a successful and accessible early college program could benefit both the local community and local colleges in Massachusetts and similar contexts as:

  • Over 90% of program participants who enrolled in college within six months of graduating high school stayed in-state — a much higher rate than their schoolmates or the match-comparison group. As the program seems to cultivate a talent pool of credentialed young people in the area, “it could be a safeguard against ‘brain drain,’” Lucien says.
  • Colleges may also find that early college program partnerships could also help their enrollment numbers. “From a college-improvement standpoint, students are already familiar with the school and may have a relationship with faculty and staff,” Lucien says.

What's Next?

Lucien notes that while promising, this was a short-term analysis and the sample size is still small. Time and a larger cohort are needed to develop a deeper understanding of this initiative. He also observes that further data is needed. He highlights a need for data about participant behavior on college campus — for example, to what extent were participants attending schools, how many credits a semester they took, and whether they persisted.


Key Takeaways

  • Explicitly focusing early college programs on equity and less on previous achievement can make them more accessible to historically underrepresented students.
  • Early college initiatives can strengthen relationships between post-secondary institutions, high schools, and the greater community.
  • Early results indicate that participating students still demonstrate an intention of attending a post-secondary institution after graduating, suggesting that an early college program can help safeguard student ambitions even in uncertain times.

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