Commentary: Early college can help drive student success

By Jim Blake and Brenda Molife

A partnership between Massachusetts community college and a bank will jumpstart high school students’ college careers.

Higher education is at a precipice. The last several years have been marked by enrollment declines, the result of a demographic shift. The arrival of the pandemic last year, however, has brought with it a dramatic decline in enrollments for students of color.

One effective strategy that has been successful in both increasing enrollment and supporting students is early college programming, which combines the traditional high school experience with the opportunity for students to earn transferable college credit by enrolling in college classes taught by college faculty at their high school.

Brockton’s future success depends on the successes of its students, and the paths they take in the coming years. Higher education is the single most important step they can take toward a strong economic future, and we know that supporting them in those endeavors benefits the city, and society, as a whole.

To help provide enhanced economic and social opportunities for Brockton students, HarborOne is partnering with Massasoit Community College and Brockton High School (BHS) to establish the HarborOne Early College Program. This program will not only grant students college credit, it will jumpstart their college careers and better prepare them for future academic endeavors — all at no cost to the student or their family.

Approximately 24 BHS students per year over the next four years will have the opportunity to gain college credit and experience college by taking classes with Massasoit Community College faculty at Brockton High School during their junior and senior year, funded by HarborOne. The students will not only get to learn the expectations and demands of college work, they will also earn credits that can add up to a full semester. These credits can then be applied toward degree attainment at Massasoit, neighboring Bridgewater State University, or other higher education institutions.

Although state dollars for early college programs have increased in recent years, innovative partnerships like the one between Massasoit and HarborOne have the potential to make a significant impact. During the last pandemic-fueled academic year, the completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — a statistic that helps point to interest in attending college — have dropped considerably, with a 25% decline at schools enrolling the most low-income students of color.

In Brockton, that number approached 50%.

Early college FAFSA completion rates, however, were consistent year-to-year, outpacing their peers.

Simply put: Early college programs work in helping students get to college, and be successful once they arrive. The average completion rate for early college students in fall 2020 was 90%, 16 percentage points better than traditional college students, with an overall GPA of 3.1

In the midst of the pandemic, applications to community colleges by Black and Latino students in Massachusetts are down one-third. Locally, Massasoit has seen an overall application decline of 14.6% – better than the state average – but with a disturbingly high 18% and 28% decline in Haitian and Cape Verdean student applications respectively.

According to a 2019 study by the think tank MassINC, however, students who participate in early college programs not only apply to college in higher numbers, they experience more success once they are there, and the pay back on the investment is huge: nationally, the study showed a $3,800 investment in early college led to an estimated lifelong public and private monetary benefit of nearly $58,000. And research has shown that students of color who participate in early college are ten times more likely to complete four years of higher education than students of color who do not have the early college advantage.

Programs like the HarborOne Early College Program are proven drivers of student success, particularly in communities like Brockton. As higher education continues to grapple not only with existing demographic shifts, but with making sure students don’t fall through pandemic-created cracks, building creative pathways to success is an important next step that we are excited to model.

This piece was originally posted here.

Jim Blake

is CEO of HarborOne Bank in Massachusetts.

Brenda Molife

is interim president of Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts.