At the auditorium of Lawrence High School, the finalists for the sophomore class speech contest at Abbott Lawrence Academy were

making their orations to a panel of judges that included the mayor of their city. Their city is among the poorest in Massachusetts, and their city has a far smaller number of college graduates than the state average.

But now, as part of the new Lawrence High School redesign model, students throughout this building had an impressive range of options for their post-graduation plans.

Despite these academic strengths, students in speech after speech talked about the high cost of college and the difficulties caused by student loans. Students questioned whether college was worth it,

compared to the way their parents had moved ahead – not through higher education but through employment (often more than one job, or a small business) and sheer hard work.

Affordability and return on investment trumped all other issues for their students. Their decision to attend college was based on a cost/benefit analysis, and college did not seem to winning out over work after high school.

Early college and dual enrollment programs, which help high school students earn college credits while in high school, help make higher education more attractive and affordable to students.

Early College programs through Merrimack College and Northern Essex Community College will serve over 200 Lawrence High School students this year with college-credit coursework free to students and their families. In our experience with 54 high school juniors taking political science and biology at Merrimack, students are performing as well, or better, than traditional college freshmen.

With a support class in place at the high school, the dual enrollment students are moving toward the close of an academically successful first year.

For today’s students who are growing up in urban areas — even those within minutes of a college campus — higher education is increasingly seen as out of reach financially and as a poor investment of time and money.

This focus on affordability is why dual enrollment and early college options are vital for colleges and universities in urban areas serving low-income students. Early College and dual enrollment programs are underrated as a strategy for attracting talented low-income students, and as a means of helping students and families see a viable and affordable pathway to college.

Research, drawing on both national studies and local case studies, shows that dual enrollment and early college students are more likely to enroll in college, more likely to succeed academically, better able to graduate in a timely manner, and at cost savings.

The experience of taking a college class on a college campus with a professor gives students the experience of success in college, an experience that can give them and their families hope.

Study skills and soft skills taught as part of the dual enrollment or early college experience can help those students enter freshman year more able to navigate the academic support system available.

Colleges and universities are often trying to convince students and families of things they cannot yet see – that they will be successful once they get to campus — asking them to make a leap of faith. Early colleges and dual enrollment programs, done correctly, give students and families reassurance that they can do it, by supporting them while they succeed in their first college courses.

Russ Olwell is associate dean at the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.

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