Massachusetts is seeing what education officials describe as an “alarming drop” in the percentage of high school graduates going to college.

New data released by the state Wednesday show the overall rate of Massachusetts high school graduates who immediately enroll in college has plunged nearly 10 percentage points over the past five years. It's now barely 60%, down from nearly 70% in 2017.

“That's in the state that has the highest college attainment level in the workforce in the country, an economy arguably more dependent on college success than any other place, and an equity commitment that requires people to have generally advanced degrees,” said Chris Gabrieli, chair of the state’s Board of Higher Education, which aggregated the data with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and other state agencies.

“It's really concerning,” Gabrieli added, sounding the alarm on the enrollment plunge and urging the state to invest in early college programs so students can earn credit — and gain academic confidence — while still in high school.

“We looked at the first 2,500 [early college] students who graduated and we see significantly higher college-going and persistence,” he said.

The good news? Data show students who participate in early college programs are 30% more likely to enroll in college, and those who perform better on the state’s Grade 10 Math MCAS are more likely to immediately attend.

Colleges across the country were already grappling with shrinking enrollment when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. But for many two-year community colleges, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout accelerated student losses.

The plunge in Massachusetts mirrors a national trend:college enrollment is down more than 10% across the country since the start of the pandemic, with a steeper dropoff at community colleges than four-year schools.

“We’ve been expecting that,” said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Community College Association. “The pandemic exacerbated it in an exponential way that we didn’t see coming, so we have a real challenge right now."

Part of the problem, he explained, is the American public is questioning the value of going to college given the rising cost of tuition and mounting student loan debt.

“We believe there absolutely is [value in college attendance], but we also believe that not every student needs a four-year bachelor's degree in order to be successful in today’s economy," Mackinnon said. "With some post-secondary education, many individuals can be highly successful. That’s where community colleges really fit into the needs of employers.”

He said the state’s community colleges are poised to deliver, but many young people are going straight into the workforce to support their families.

“[High school graduates] can have a decent-paying job starting at $16 or $17 an hour doing a rather menial task,” Mackinnon said. “So the opportunity cost of going to college and not working is extremely high, especially for low-income individuals, and that happens to be the market that we mostly serve in community colleges.”

The new data from the state show huge disparities across gender, race and socio-economic status. Specifically, the pandemic continues to speed up the mass disappearance of men from college campuses and, since 2016, college attendance rates have dipped the most in districts with higher concentrations of poverty. Today, only one in three low-income men in Massachusetts are going to college. That’s compared to eight in ten middle- and upper-income women in the state.

To reverse that trend, districts like Lynn Public Schools are expanding their early college programs, from 450 students last year to more than 700 this fall.

In 2021, just 37 percent of high school graduates in Lynn went on to college. That’s down from 50 percent in 2019.

Shannon Gardner directs the early college program in Lynn and says many of her students are not going to college because of the economy.

“It really is the COVID-effect. They need to work,” Gardner said, pointing out that students who participate in Lynn’s early college program are twice as likely to enroll in college immediately after graduating high school.

“They’re already college students with a college transcript,” she said. “They’ve already gotten a taste of success in a college classroom. It’s not something strange to them.”

State lawmakers are taking note of this success. The budget Governor Charlie Baker signed last week included $19 million for expanding the state’s 39 early college programs at 50 high schools and 24 colleges.

Erika Giampietro, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Early College, said it’s critical the state continues to invest in what policymakers know works.

“We know that these measures are highly predictive of ultimate degree completion,” she said. “Early college can help to mitigate the enrollment plunge we're seeing.”