BOSTON – When Brian Perez begins his freshman year at Northern Essex Community College this fall, he'll already have a semester's worth of credits under his belt.
Perez, who graduated from Lawrence High School this spring, is one of more than 2,000 Massachusetts students who participated in a state-funded program that allows low-income students to take courses at public and private universities and community colleges for free and earn transferable credits toward college degrees.
He took four courses at Northern Essex during his senior year, earning 12 credits, which he plans to apply toward a two-year nursing degree.
"It really gives me a head start," said Perez, 18, who will the first member of his family to attend college. "I've got some credits and I've already started building my GPA."
On Beacon Hill, Gov. Charlie Baker is pushing to significantly expand such early college and career pathway programs, which operate under agreements between high schools, community colleges and state-funded universities.
There are 35 high schools — including Haverhill and Lawrence — and 18 public and private colleges in Massachusetts with early college programs.
Baker, as part of an education overhaul package filed earlier this year, has proposed creating a new funding category for local school districts in their annual Chapter 70 allocations that gives participating high schools at least $1,050 per year for each student enrolled in an early college or career pathway program.
Baker similarly wants to create a fund that gives participating public colleges $550 per student for each early college course taken, to help offset costs.
Education Secretary James Peyser said the goal is to improve college enrollment and completion rates among low-income, minority and first-generation students.
"By having them earn credits before they get out of high school, there's a much greater likelihood they'll finish their college education," he said in an interview. "It gives students a leg up on paying for college while giving them the confidence to succeed when they get there, because they've already taken college-level courses."
More money needed
In Haverhill, the high school recently partnered with Northern Essex and expects to offer participating students college-level courses in liberal arts, business, healthcare, education, social services, criminal justice and STEM beginning this fall. Students at Lynn Classical and Lynn English high schools, Lynn Vocational Technical Institute and Fecteau Leary Alternative High School will be able to take college courses at North Shore Community College this fall.
In most cases, students enter early college programs in the ninth or 10th grades, earning up to 12 credits by taking college-level courses taught at their school or at a community college or state university campus. The curriculum and educational guidelines are set by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Higher Education.
To be sure, Baker's push to expand the programs hasn't gained much traction in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which is wrestling with proposals aimed at ironing out funding disparities between low-income and more affluent public school districts.
The House and Senate didn't include the governor's proposal in their versions of the fiscal 2020 budget, which is still being worked out by a legislative committee.
There is also uncertainty about whether Baker's proposal makes it into a final version of an education funding bill, which is also being hammered out by lawmakers inn closed-door meetings.
To date, the Baker administration has been paying for early college programs with a mix of funding sources, but Peyser said more money is needed.
"In order to get it to scale, we need more reliable funding on an ongoing basis," he said.
State education officials say 2 of 5 students who enter public colleges and universities in Massachusetts are underprepared.
A 2016 report commissioned by the Barr Foundation found that early college increases college graduation rates, particularly among low-income students.
The study, which cited research from early college programs elsewhere, said there is ample evidence that such programs would be successful in Massachusetts.
"Several academic studies on early college models have found that these models have a beneficial impact on all students, making them more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, persist through and obtain a degree," the report's authors wrote.
Lidia Flores, who recently graduated from Lawrence High School, participated in a state-funded program with Northern Essex, earning 29 college credits. Flores plans to transfer those credits to Framingham State University, where she will major in English with a concentration in creative writing beginning this fall.
She hopes the state can figure out a way to boost funding for the program so that more students from low-income families can get a leg up on college.
"It's a great opportunity for kids to save money and earn credits," she said. "I was nervous about applying to college but this has prepared me for the experience."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.