As long as she can remember, Xochilth Urena said she’s wanted to go to college in the United States.

“When you're little, you have these big dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer,” said Urena, a senior at Lawrence High School. “I was always looking forward to college.”

Urena, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic whose first language is Spanish, made her decision after taking real college courses offered by her high school through nearby Northern Essex Community College. “When we first set foot on campus and there were real college students and real college professors doing the same work that college students are doing, it kind of pushes you, and it shows you that you're capable of it,” she said.

Urena is one of just 90 students across Massachusetts, with a population of about 7 million, who researchers say will graduate this spring with a high school diploma and a two-year associates degree. That number compares to more than 500 in North Carolina, where 10.4 million people live.

A new report out from MassInc, a nonpartisan think tank based in Boston, shows low-income students like Urena who take free college courses in high school are 20 percentage points more likely to go directly to college — and to stay enrolled — than their peers.

Since state education leaders launched what they said would be a major early college initiative four years ago, Massachusetts has created 38 “early college” high schools.

Advocates say the state needs to dramatically expand the program because only about one in five low-income students in the state earns a college degree, even as the state's economy demands more skilled workers.

“Most of these low-income students are going, and they’re trying," said Ben Forman, who led the study as MassInc's research director. "But they’re not getting through."

Forman said that because public college tuition and fees have become more expensive and state aid has fallen, the cost of college often gets in the way.

“I think the question is, ‘What are we going to do about this problem?’ And it's becoming more and more serious as our population becomes more and more diverse,” he said.

The MassInc study found that low-income students who take college courses during their regular high school day at no cost to themselves or their families are about twice as likely to earn a degree compared to those who don’t take them.

“It hits on all the problems, right? It hits on cost, because you're providing students with a chance to do college in high school for free,” he said. “They got exposure early, so they understand what it is. They feel comfortable in that environment. They've taken tough college courses, and they're ready for it.”

Lawrence Public Schools enrolls 13,000 students, nearly all economically disadvantaged. Odanis Hernandez, the district's chief operating officer, said early college is “an opportunity for our students to take college classes while being a high school student.”

The district’s early college program partners with Northern Essex Community College and Merrimack College to offer about 280 students courses in health, science, technology, entrepreneurship and public speaking.

Students who participate are only required to have strong attendance and a C average in math and English.

“We don't select the top performers,” Hernandez said, sitting inside the high school’s cafeteria lined with college pennants.

Asked why it’s so hard to convince low-income students to enroll in college, she replied, “I think it is making them aware of the resources and the opportunities that do exist for them.”

Hernandez acknowledged the pandemic has opened many jobs for students in Lawrence at grocery stores, fast food joints and delivery companies like Amazon. “They’re contributing towards the family’s income, so they’re faced with this dilemma — whether I go on to college or I stay and I continue to work a minimum wage job,” she said.

Odanis Hernandez, chief operating officer for Lawrence Public Schools, said the pandemic has forced many students to go straight into the workforce to support their families. “They’re contributing towards the family’s income, so they’re faced with this dilemma whether I go on to college or I stay and I continue to work a minimum wage job.”
Meredith Nierman

Making that dilemma tougher, experts say, is that state lawmakers haven't provided enough funding for early college courses. Massachusetts spends about $4 million a year to pay tuition and fees to participating colleges. By comparison, that’s less than what the Red Sox pay their third baseman, Rafael Devers.

“It's underfunded, underappreciated,” said Nancy Hoffman, a senior advisor with Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that helped design and develop the first early college high schools in the country.

Hoffman sees the mindset on Beacon Hill as a big obstacle in Massachusetts.

“Many of the legislators went to Suffolk, BC, BU, Harvard, MIT,” she said. “The public system is not in the public eye.”

In other states like Texas and Colorado, lawmakers have taken early college programs and put them on steroids. In North Carolina, disadvantaged students in early college high schools are closing the degree gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers by more than 60 percentage points.

Massachusetts, Hoffman said, has fallen behind after introducing the concept of early college in the 1960s.

“I think those states were more focused on workforce development than the sort of snobby New England states, where everyone was supposed to get a four-year degree and, you know, read Chaucer and live happily ever after,” she said.

Massachusetts business and community leaders have sent a letter urging lawmakers to deepen the early college initiative and to double state funding.

“That expansion of the talent pipeline is something that we in the business community think is absolutely necessary,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Lambert, the former mayor of Fall River, said the pandemic has created some significant challenges to local economies while encouraging more low-income young men to skip college and jump straight into the workforce, so there’s a real need to make early college more than a small program that serves just 3,000 students across the state.

Today, 70% of all jobs in Massachusetts require some post-secondary education, according to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

“We've got to make [early college] systemic in each of our schools,” Lambert said. “The thing that the business community loves about it is it's not just about sending kids off to college with no purpose. Each of these programs are in career pathways.”

Democratic State Sen. Anne Gobi,from Spencer in central Massachusetts has been listening to these pleas from the business community. She said supporting pathways to community colleges is critical to creating an equitable economic recovery.

“They can pivot so quickly to meet the demands of the workforce and our employers and that's what we need now coming out of this pandemic,” said Gobi, who co-chairs the Legislature's higher ed committee.

Gobi is a rare community college and state university graduate on Beacon Hill. She’s also a former high school history teacher, so she said that she thinks a lot about what expanding early college would mean for her district.

“I have a lot of low-income students, and so I would like to see more of an expansion,” she said. “But there's no question we need to put our money where our mouth is.”

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., has proposed the federal government step in to help fill the gap in state funding. He's ask a congressional committee to earmark $1 million to expand early college at Worcester State University for students in central Massachusetts. That amount represents a 25% increase of what the state spends.

At Lawrence High, Urena said that when she and her classmates talk about going to college, it often boils down to two things: money and motivation.

“A lot of people in Lawrence want to be rappers, or I have friends that are nail technicians,” she said. “They just don't see college as an option.”

For her, though, she sees college as a way out.

“It’s the only way to break that cycle of poverty that we have here in Lawrence,” she said.

In the fall, she’s decided to attend UMass Amherst, where she plans to pursue a degree in legal studies.