Worcester State earns million dollar early college expansion grant


During her visit to Worcester State last spring, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten described the successful Early College Worcester program as a beacon for the rest of the nation.

Now, that beacon is about to get brighter.

A new $1 million grant to Worcester State University will allow the early college programming to expand with the addition of a new Early College Central Massachusetts program for areas outside of Worcester. The grant, from the U.S. Department of Education, will allow the new Early College Central Massachusetts program to extend programming to more low-income, first-generation, under-represented, and/or disadvantaged high school students in urban and rural areas of Central Massachusetts. Through the program, high school students will be provided with dual enrollment college classes, student support services, and summer residential learning opportunities.

“Everybody across the country can learn from what’s happening here, how you’ve broken down the silos and put students at the center of every decision you’ve made,” Marten said at the Worcester State event that celebrated the Early College program and the success of its students. “Folks around the country will see this as a model for their communities.”

Since 2018, thousands of underserved students have earned college credit through the Early College Worcester program, a cooperative effort between Worcester State University, Quinsigamond Community College, and the Worcester Public Schools. The program helps high school students prepare for higher education while also giving them the opportunity to earn college credits at no cost. In 2021, Massachusetts early college students statewide earned 24,000 credits, saving their families $5.2 million in tuition and fees.

The early exposure and access to higher education can be life changing for the high schoolers. When early college students graduate from high school, they go on to college at a rate 53% higher than peers and persist at higher rates. The median income in Massachusetts is $41,000 with a high school diploma and $69,000 with a bachelor’s degree.

“Early College provides high school students with a comfort level and a sense that they belong on a college campus and that’s one of the big components of our program here,” President Barry M. Maloney said. “Whether they’re coming to the Quinsigamond Community College campus or to Worcester State, we want them to feel as if they belong, and to interact with our students and faculty to give them the confidence that they can achieve their higher education aspirations.”

Studies have shown that the country is experiencing a 30% drop in college enrollment among under-represented students. Worcester State University, along with partner organizations, recognized this challenge, and Worcester became the first district in Massachusetts to establish early college programs in all its high schools.

The university has been working to expand early college classes to Springfield and other communities around the Commonwealth. This new grant funding will further allow the expansion of this beneficial programming to other rural, suburban, and urban areas of Central Massachusetts.

Early College Central Massachusetts is designed to be flexible to meet the needs of varying student populations in different cities and districts. Course locations may be on a college campus and/or in the high school, modalities can be in-person, online, or hybrid, and course materials are typically open educational resources, when available. Worcester State’s Latino Education Institute provides near-peer college mentors and facilitates instruction in multiple languages.

“One of the things that’s really important to us is keeping the program accessible, so that means delivering college courses where students can attend them,” Ryan G. Forsythe, vice president for enrollment management, said. “Additionally, it’s important that there is no cost for students and families, so they can participate in a class that might otherwise cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.”

Early College “provides a wonderful opportunity for our students to get a taste of college life and to make them feel like they can be successful in college classes,” Michelle Huaman, world languages liaison for the Worcester Public Schools, said. “It helps them get comfortable with the college campus and seeing themselves as college students.”

Monica Echevarria, a teacher at Claremont Academy in Worcester, said she has received nothing but positive feedback from students enrolled in the program. “We have some students taking classes at Worcester State, and they’re very excited about it,” she said. “They talk about how it’s a big university environment compared with our school, which is very small—500 students between middle school and high school—but they love it.”

Photo: Antonio Guijarro-Donadios, associate professor of Spanish and World Languages Department chair, leads high school students an interactive class as part of Worcester State’s Early College program. (Photo by Nancy Sheehan)