A variety of paths lead to a higher education in Haverhill and the Merrimack Valley, but physical proximity isn’t everything. Hundreds of kids who graduate from our region’s high schools don’t go to college, for reasons of choice or circumstance, even though one may be waiting just down the street.

Recently encouraging signs emerged that the distance between those kids and college classrooms is narrowing — a positive development for students as well as our communities.

The state Department of Higher Education late last month said its two-year-old Early College program is growing, with a half-dozen new connections between high schools and colleges. New opportunities include those for students at Lynn English and Lynn Classical to take classes at Salem State University, whose courses are already available to students in Salem.

Enrollment is growing elsewhere in the program, which this year involves more than three-dozen high schools, 19 colleges and 4,200 high school students. More kids are adding college coursework to their schedules, education officials said, even as a pandemic scrambles everyone’s plans to return to school.

Most encouraging are signs that Early College is having its intended effect: High school seniors with a college course on their transcript are 20% more likely than their peers to enroll in college after graduation, according to the report. They are 25% more likely to complete the standard application for college financial aid.

Carlos E. Santiago, the state’s higher education commissioner, said he’s especially optimistic about the opportunities the program is creating for minorities, as gaps grow between Black and Latino students and their white counterparts.

Programs that place high school students in college courses have been around for decades. This one targets low-income districts in particular, such as Lawrence, where slightly more than half of high school graduates in 2018-19 went on to college, compared to a statewide average of more than 72%.

In the city, not 10% of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, Massachusetts as a whole has the highest level of educational attainment of any state in the U.S. More than 40% of the adult population has at least a bachelor’s degree.

For Lawrence, Early College makes classes at Northern Essex Community College or Merrimack College available to high school students. Their tuition and fees are covered in part by the college and the school district. And the outcome is as much about confidence as it is college credit, proving to them that they are capable of college-level work, as state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, previously Lawrence’s superintendent, noted last week.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened for us,” three Lawrence High students — a senior and two alumni enrolled at Northern Essex and Merrimack — wrote in January in a letter to the editor about the spark they’d gotten from Early College. They described the fear of signing up for classes on campuses, even though they were just a mile and a half and two miles from their high school, as well as the reward of finishing.

A college education is invaluable, and not just as a credential. It prepares students for success in the workforce. It makes them more careful consumers. And it makes them more thoughtful, engaged citizens. In communities such as Haverhill, Lawrence and Salem, the Early College program is making it all of that more attainable.

 

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