As far back as she can remember, Xochilth Urena said she wanted to go to college in the United States.
“When you’re little you have these big dreams of being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” said Urena, a senior at Lawrence High School. “I always looked forward to college.”
Urena, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic whose mother tongue is Spanish, made her decision after taking real college courses offered by her high school through the nearby Northern Essex Community College. “When we first set foot on campus and there were real students and real university professors doing the same job as the students, it kind of pushes you and shows you that you are capable of it, ”she said.
Urena is one of 90 students in Massachusetts, with a population of around 7 million, who researchers say will graduate from high school and a two-year associate’s degree this spring. That number compares to more than 500 in North Carolina, home to 10.4 million people.
A new report from MassInc, a Boston-based non-partisan think tank, shows that low-income students like Urena who take free college classes in high school are 20 percentage points more likely to go straight to college – and stay enrolled – than their peers.
Since the state’s education leaders launched what they said was a major first college initiative four years ago, Massachusetts has established 38 “first college” high schools.
Advocates say the state needs to dramatically expand the program because only one in five low-income students in the state graduate from college, even as the state’s economy demands more skilled workers.
“Most of these low-income students go there and they try,” said Ben Forman, who led the study as the research director of MassInc. “But they’re not making it.”
Forman said that because tuition and fees at public colleges have become more expensive and state aid has declined, the cost of a university education is often a barrier.
“I think the question is, ‘What are we going to do about this problem? “And it gets 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 family are about twice as likely to graduate as those who don’t. .
“It touches all problems, right?” It has an impact on the cost because you are giving students the option to go to college in high school for free, ”he said. “They were exposed early on, so they understand what it is. They feel comfortable in this environment. They took a tough college course and they’re ready for it.
Lawrence Public Schools welcomes 13,000 students, almost all of them economically disadvantaged. Odanis Hernandez, district operations manager, said starting college is “an opportunity for our students to take college courses while in high school.”
District’s first college program partners with Northern Essex Community College and Merrimack College will offer courses in health, science, technology, entrepreneurship and public speaking to approximately 280 students.
Students who participate need only have high attendance and a C average in Mathematics and English.
“We don’t pick the top performers,” said Hernandez, sitting inside the high school cafeteria lined with college pennants.
When asked why it was so difficult to convince low-income students to enroll in college, she replied, “I think it makes them aware of the resources and opportunities that are available for them.
Hernandez acknowledged that the pandemic has opened up many jobs for Lawrence’s students at grocery stores, fast food outlets and delivery companies like Amazon. “They contribute to the family income, so they face this dilemma – whether I continue my education or stay and continue working for minimum wage,” she said.
Experts say this dilemma is even more difficult because state lawmakers have failed to provide enough funding for early college courses. Massachusetts spends about $ 4 million a year to pay tuition and fees at participating colleges. By comparison, that’s less than what the Red Sox pay for their third goal, Rafael Devers.
“It’s underfunded, underrated,” said Nancy Hoffman, senior advisor at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that has helped design and develop the first high schools in the country.
Hoffman sees Beacon Hill’s mindset as a big obstacle in Massachusetts.
“A lot of lawmakers have gone 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 took the first college programs and put them on steroids. In North Carolina, disadvantaged first-high college students close the education gap between low-income and higher-income students peers over 60 percentage points.
Massachusetts, Hoffman said, fell behind after introducing the concept of early college in the 1960s.
“I think those states were more focused on workforce development than the kind of posh 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 sent a letter urging lawmakers to deepen the first colleges initiative and double state funding.
“This expansion of the talent pool is something that we in the business world believe is absolutely necessary,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Trade Alliance for Education.
Lambert, the former mayor of Fall River, said the pandemic has created significant challenges for local economies while encouraging more low-income young men to skip college and jump straight into the workforce, So there is a real need to make early university more than a small program that only serves 3,000 students across the state.
Today, 70% of all jobs in Massachusetts require post-secondary education, according to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.
” We have to do [early college] systemic in each of our schools, ”Lambert said. “What the business world loves is it’s not just about sending kids to college aimlessly. Each of these programs is on a career path.
Democratic State Senator. Anne Gobi, de Spencer in central Massachusetts listened to these calls from the business community. She said supporting gateways to community colleges is critical to creating a fair economic recovery.
“They can pivot so quickly to meet the demands of the workforce and our employers and that’s what we need now to come out of this pandemic,” said Gobi, who co-chairs the education committee. Superior of the Legislative Assembly.
Gobi is a rare community college and state university graduate in Beacon Hill. She’s also a former high school history teacher, so she said she thinks a lot about what early college expansion will mean for her district.
“I have a lot of low income students so I would like to see more expansion,” she said. “But there is no doubt that we have to put our money where our mouth is.”
U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Proposed that the federal government step in to help close the state’s funding gap. He asked a congressional committee to allocate $ 1 million to expand the college at Worcester State University for students in central Massachusetts. This amount represents a 25% increase in government spending.
At Lawrence High, Urena said that when she and her classmates talk about going to college, it often comes down to two things: money and motivation.
“A lot of people in Lawrence want to be rappers, or I have friends who are nail techs,” she said. “They just don’t see college as an option.”
For her, however, she sees college as an issue.
“It’s the only way to break this cycle of poverty that we have here in Lawrence,” she said.
In the fall, she decided to attend UMass Amherst, where she plans to pursue law studies.