Early College: A Strategy That Works

Higher Ed Policy

In conversation with Erika Giampietro, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Early College

Erika, thanks for joining me at Higher Ed Policy here at Inside Higher Ed. Tell us a little about your current work role and the work that you do. 

  • I am the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Early College. We are a coalition of community-based organizations, college success organizations, businesses, philanthropists, researchers, and higher education and K12 leaders sharing a bold goal: close one-quarter of the Massachusetts college success equity gap by race and income and benefit thousands of students beyond that through the growth of high quality Early College. Achieving this means both scale (going from ~4500 students in Early College today to 45,000 students in the next five years) and quality (impact must remain high even as we scale). The Alliance supports that goal in four ways: coalition-building, capacity building, policy, and innovation.

You come to Early College work from the K-12 world. How did you get here and how does that inform your perspective?

  • I spent 7 years at the Boston Public Schools doing strategy and finance work. The best work we did happened not just when there was a good idea, but when the conditions were right for that good idea to take root. Those conditions – especially having mutual buy-in at the highest levels of system leadership and at the community level in schools and neighborhoods – need to be in place whether you’re working in K12 or higher education.  These conditions exist for Early College. The Massachusetts legislature, governor, commissioners of K12 and higher education, and board chairs want to see Early College thrive, and so, too, do students, families, school and community leaders, and educators. Early College is reaching 39 programs across 50 high schools and 24 colleges in the Commonwealth. There is a great groundswell of support for Early College, and it is these conditions that will allow it to truly grow and successfully serve students.

The readership at Inside Higher Ed is largely from the higher ed sector. What do you want us to know about early college?

  • I’d want readers to know that Early College’s greatest strength is also its most significant challenge – that is, bridging the K12 and higher education spaces. When we do it well, the benefits to students are unparalleled. Well-controlled matched peer methodology is showing us a 16 percentage point bump, consistent across race and income, in immediate college enrollment and college persistence for Early College students, and we know that these measures are highly predictive of ultimate degree completion. These are some of the largest effect sizes for any single initiative currently ongoing in MA.  The outcomes are there, and at the same time, doing it well is challenging.  It means fundamentally shifting mindsets about the responsibilities and commitments schools make to students and redefining success, and it means sharing collective vision and responsibility for meeting student needs across high school and college campuses. Once those mindsets are in place, it means changing systems and structures – aligning bell schedules across two large and complex institutions, sharing student progress data in both directions, and weaving together two separate student support systems. Early Colleges across the country, and now in Massachusetts, are overcoming these barriers in large numbers, and students are benefiting greatly.

This is a policy blog – what early college policies have been the most effective/impactful? Where do we need to do more in terms of policies?

  • The state’s Early College designation was a critical first policy step in Massachusetts. The designation is earned by a high school and a college partnership and, upon approval of a student-centered, equity-focused Early College design, makes the program eligible for state funding. It is through this designation process that the State is able to define the key tenets of Early College – equitable access, robust student supports, academic pathways, career connections, and high quality, deep partnerships – and it’s a first step I’d recommend to any state adopting Early College.  For policy priorities going forward, we will be advocating for formalizing that approach in state law and fortifying the funding model, improving automaticity of college credit transfer, evolving the designation to accommodate innovations that support quality and scale, and incorporating postsecondary success more formally and meaningfully into the K12 accountability system.

Closing remarks – it’s a challenging time in our society, can you leave our readers with some inspirational words with hope for a better future?

  • I know for me at times like these, I find comfort in results and in commitments to consistently evaluate and strengthen programs for students. Our state leaders have committed to continuous evaluation of Early College and improvement, and the best, gold standard research across the country shows us that Early College can double Associate’s degree attainment and significantly boost four-year completion rates for students. At a time when college degrees matter more than ever for attaining family-supporting jobs and when college enrollment is down meaningfully, we have a strategy that we know works.

Mary Churchill is Professor of the Practice and Director of the Higher Education Administration program at Boston University where she also serves as Associate Dean. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis. 

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