Skip to content

Why the Early College Movement is Ready to Grow in Massachusetts

JFF’s research shows strong outcomes, opportunities, and lessons from the state’s early college programs

December 10, 2021

At a Glance

JFF’s research shows strong outcomes, opportunities, and lessons from the state’s early college programs

Nancy Hoffman Senior Advisor

As 2021 comes to an end, I’m thankful to the Massachusetts House, Senate, and Governor Charlie Baker for doubling funding in the fiscal year 2022 budget to expand early college opportunities to thousands more young people. The state’s leaders can make this investment in our collective future with confidence because the results so far have been so promising.

But we will continue to ask for more—and so should you. I’m not talking about money, though it will be essential for the state to increase funding for early college programs beyond where it is now. On behalf of the nearly 4,000 students currently in early college, we need to shift from appreciating the promising outcomes to supporting true future-ready excellence. This means many more students enrolling in early college and earning more college credit—at least one year’s worth—while still in high school. The Massachusetts Business and Education Council and the nonpartisan think tank MassINC have argued for increasing enrollment to at least 45,000 students in the next several years.

This is the moment to ensure that early colleges become a visible, respected, and accessible option for all students in the state’s public high-school-through-college system.

This is the moment to ensure that early colleges become a visible, respected, and accessible option for all students in the state’s public high-school-through-college system.

I have been working with JFF to develop and scale early college high schools and dual enrollment opportunities across the United States for 20 years. These programs enable students to get a head start on college coursework before even graduating high school. Nearly two decades of national research confirms that early college substantially increases the odds of degree completion, especially for students who are statistically less likely to complete a college degree, such as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth and young people from low-income backgrounds.

Massachusetts was late to start early colleges, compared with states like Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and New York that began in the 2000s. But educators here are carefully scaffolding expansion, taking care to collect data on progress and learn from the early adopters. For the last six years, JFF staff have worked with Charlestown High School, Bunker Hill Community College, global software giant SAP, and the Linde Family Foundation in Boston to launch and scale C-Town Early College Pathways. And over the last three years, JFF has designed and facilitated an early college learning community, supported by the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, with six maturing early college partnerships, including C-Town.

Two new series from JFF pinpoint lessons drawn from the work of these partnerships to support the scale of additional early colleges and improve the quality of allThree Big Lessons in Six Years: Launching and Sustaining Early College Pathways at Charlestown High School and An Education Powerhouse: Massachusetts Early College High School. Among the themes across the series are the importance of trust and alignment between high school and college instructors and leaders; the need for dedicated staff in an early college program (a school leader cannot run a school as well as lead a complex new initiative); and the importance of introducing high school students to good careers that you can get with an associate’s degree.

The early data from Massachusetts’s investment in early college shows major achievement on two key benchmarks that predict completion of a college degree: the proportion of students who enroll in college immediately after high school and the proportion who persist in college for at least two semesters. According to a recent report from MassINC, early college students in the state’s 2019 cohort were 38 percent more likely to enroll in college the fall following high school graduation, and were 53 percent more likely to remain enrolled one year later. MassINC is now calling for the state to continue expanding early college until enrollment reaches 45,000 students. Given the success so far, we are compelled to ask: Is that enough?

Now we need to ensure that the state’s reputation for excellence in education makes our early colleges the highest quality. I don’t simply mean that early college students should be passing their college courses with good grades; that’s already happening. I mean that as new early colleges are created with new funding, the secondary, postsecondary, nonprofit, and private sectors must work together to ensure that each new program provides top-notch college and career preparation, including meaningful work-based learning, for every student.

Data tell a story after the fact: how many students earned what number of credits. While it is challenging to track the number of credits earned, the state estimates that the nearly 4,000 students currently enrolled will collectively earn around 27,375 credits. While analyzing data is critical for judging our progress, it’s also important to assess current practices and draw lessons from program implementation thus far. Each early college team must ask and evaluate what is going really well and what needs improvement.

These series paint a picture of the vision, growth, and persistence shown by leaders across sectors as they have come together to expand opportunity for students in Massachusetts.

One specific question already under discussion among the state’s educators, business leaders, and policymakers impressed with the success thus far is: what would it take to increase the number of college credits students earn, so that gaining a full year of college credit during high school becomes the norm? Reflection and action on these issues should inform the expansion of small programs and the design of new ones.

Our two new series document the decisions made, challenges faced, lessons learned, and student outcomes from several early college programs in Massachusetts. Three Big Lessons in Six Years draws on the experiences of high school, college, and corporate leaders as they launched and scaled early college pathways at Charlestown High School. All three lessons are available now. An Education Powerhouse tackles issues that arose in the Massachusetts early college learning community, which JFF facilitates. The first three reports are available now, and additional reports will be released in the coming months.

Together, these series paint a picture of the vision, growth, and persistence shown by leaders across sectors as they have come together to expand opportunity for students in Massachusetts. We need to continue to build on these successes to bring early college to even more Massachusetts students.

Three Big Lessons in Six Years Series


Set a Vision to Guide the Future

In Part 1 of our three-part series “Three Big Lessons in Six Years,” learn how leaders of C-Town Pathways in Massachusetts brought partners together to embrace a shared vision of non-negotiables in early college initiatives.…

August 6, 2021

Build a Framework That Allows for Structure and Flexibility

Learn how the team at Charlestown High School created a structured early college pathways experience that also allows for flexibility and individualization of students’ early college journeys. Learn how the team at Charlestown High School…

August 6, 2021

Build a ‘Both/And’ Team

Learn how C-Town Pathways built a “both/and” team of staff that can both create a vision for the program and keep that program running through day-to-day challenges, ensuring its success. Learn how C-Town Pathways built…

August 6, 2021

Education Powerhouse Series


Strategies to Support Young Men of Color in Early College High Schools

Early college high schools are powerful instruments for success for students, especially young men of color. This report outlines strategies to remove systemic barriers to their engagement and provides examples of successful and emerging practices…

April 13, 2021

Building a Foundation for Early College in Grades 9 and 10

Encouraged by strong initial results from early college high school programs, Massachusetts aims to further expand them throughout the state. This report outlines strategies for reaching more students: expanding access to students in grades 9…

July 30, 2021

Early College High School Is Changing Students’ Lives and Futures in Lawrence, Massachusetts

Hundreds of students at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts are getting a head start on their college careers, thanks to an innovative model that helps students prepare for and earn college degrees while in high…

November 12, 2021

Related Content


Massachusetts Early College

Massachusetts early college high school programs are laying the groundwork for young people across the state to successfully transition from high school to college and careers. In Partnership With An Education Powerhouse: Massachusetts Early College…

April 13, 2021

C-Town Pathways

What do you get when you cross a global software giant with a Boston high school? The next generation of STEM professionals, innovators, and entrepreneurs ready to change the world. Today’s high school students need…

April 19, 2018