BOSTON — Of all the things recent high school graduates across Massachusetts will do this month to prepare for college, there’s one step Julissa Bejar feels she can skip: worrying about what it will be like to step onto campus and sit down for the first time in a lecture hall.

Bejar, of Lawrence, plans to attend Merrimack College on a full scholarship, already equipped with 16 credits she earned while in high school, through the state’s early college program.

“Early college is a really good opportunity for kids who might be first-generation or don’t have families that went to college,” Bejar said. “As a first-generation kid, college is actually very scary. We want to do it, but it’s just very scary. We feel like we’re not sure if we can or we’re not prepared for it and maybe other kids might be, and the early college program really helps kids like me not be so scared going into the process and know that we can do it.”

Bejar, who plans to major in marketing, said she was nervous when she first started taking classes at Merrimack as a high school junior, but found the professors to be “really understanding” and the workload “challenging, but in a way that we could do it.”

The partnership between Lawrence Public Schools and Merrimack College is one of a number of such programs across the state that give students the opportunity to take college courses and earn the accompanying credits while still in high school.

The Baker administration began officially designating early college programs last year, and 35 high schools and 18 colleges now offer them. Gov. Charlie Baker’s office in June said there were roughly 2,400 students enrolled in early college and a similar, workforce-based “career pathways” program.

Baker has proposed integrating early college programs into the state’s school funding formula, and his education secretary said officials hope early college can boost college completion rates while also helping the state grapple with changing demographics.

Under the school finance reform plan Baker offered in January, every student enrolled in a designated early college or career pathway program would yield another $1,050 to their district’s foundation budget, resulting in additional state aid.

Lawmakers on the Education Committee held a hearing on Baker’s proposal and other school funding bills in March, and legislative leaders have said they want to pass a bill reworking the formula this year.

Education Secretary James Peyser said the administration believes additional financial support for high schools, coupled with a proposed $550 per course per early college student for higher education institutions, “can provide sufficient incentive to really have this thing take off.”

Peyser said early college can “put college in play for students who are currently from families or communities that are underrepresented in higher education who may not see college in their future,” by getting them thinking about post-secondary education and career paths earlier and building their confidence.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is that we have a lot of students who are going to college, but not a lot of students who are completing it, and certainly completing it on time or within six years, and so we need to do a lot better in terms of not just getting students to college, but getting them through,” he said in a recent interview. “Part of that is ensuring that they’re prepared when they go, both from an academic view but also just from a — for lack of a better word — social point of view — that they understand what college is about, that they’re used to it, so it’s not sort of a shock to the system when they get there.”

“Like a head start”

Maria Figueroa, a Chelsea High School graduate who said she comes from a low-income family, said she took early college classes because it offered her “a chance of growing.” She took classes including writing and medical terminology, and discovered an interest in psychology.

Figueroa said she’s now thinking of a career working with teenagers. She’s participating in Year Up, a program that provides job skills training and internships, and plans to go to college afterwards. She said early college was a challenge and “just really changed high school for me.”

“For me, I think it’s like a head start, and it’s also a push to keep going,” Figueroa said. “I already have these college credits, so I can do more.”

Lidia Flores, a Lawrence student who took classes at Northern Essex Community College, said early college helped her “recover from a really rough patch” by keeping her focused on school. The first-generation college student said she decided to major in English at Framingham State University because she enjoyed her early college writing classes so much. Her career goals range from becoming a script writer to working with the United Nations.

“When I was registering for my classes recently, I felt very prepared,” Flores said. “Every time you switched to a new room to talk about our college classes and all that, I felt prepared. I wasn’t nervous like the other students around me. I felt like, I’m ready to do this.”

The administration’s push for early college comes as Massachusetts’ population is aging. A December 2018 “Healthy Aging Data Report” by the Gerontology Institute of the John W. McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston found more than 1 million Massachusetts residents — or about 15 percent of the state’s population — were age 65 and older, an increase of more than 125,000 people above the number logged in a similar count three years earlier.

Peyser said the number of people 65 and older is now larger than the population of students coming up through elementary and secondary schools, creating “a pretty significant gap in the workforce both from a numbers point of view but also from a skills point of view.”

Meanwhile, he said, the student population is becoming increasingly diverse, with a higher percentage of students who come from demographics with historically lower college attendance and completion rates.

“It just means we’ve got to do a whole lot more,” he said. “We have to redouble our efforts to be really focused on this issue in a way that we just haven’t in the past, and early college directly addresses this college readiness in success issue in really a way no other initiative out there does.”


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