Chelsea’s David vs. Goliath College Enrollment Battle

The Gateway Cities Journal

Chelsea’s David vs. Goliath College Enrollment Battle

Take a look at the Week 16 Household Pulse Survey, a special series developed by the Census Bureau to track conditions throughout the pandemic, and you’ll find jaw-dropping evidence of college dreams deferred. More than half of Latino and over 40 percent of Black students in Massachusetts have put their college plans on hold. These survey data comport with the alarming trends we saw in community college enrollment figures released last week by the state Department of Higher Education. First-time undergraduate enrollment fell by 20 percent at Bristol and North Shore, 22 percent at Middlesex, 26 percent at Springfield, 29 percent at Holyoke, and 35 percent at Massasoit. In sharp contrast, public institutions serving more affluent students seem to be weathering the pandemic quite well; at UMass-Amherst, enrollment is actually up slightly this fall.

These disparate enrollment patterns have major equity implications. Momentum is one of the most important predictors of post-secondary success for disadvantaged students. All else equal, those who move directly from high school to college are much more likely to earn a post-secondary degree. Massachusetts has struggled to help low-income students maintain momentum, which leads to growing socioeconomic gaps in post-secondary attainment, greater income inequality, and rising levels of economic segregation.

At the Gateway City Innovation Institute Awards this month, we recognized small but mighty Chelsea for its David vs. Goliath attempt to counter this systemic challenge. By building one of the largest Early College High Schools in the state, the district has taken hold of an intervention that has been rigorously proven to significantly increase college completion. New data from 2019 graduates show that is working: nearly two-thirds of students in Chelsea High’s Early College program went on to college immediately after high school, compared to only about one-third of students who did not participate.

Looking further into Chelsea’s success in preparation for the awards event, we found three critical ingredients:

First, the students are committed and eager. They recognize that Early College is a unique opportunity to improve their college and career prospects and they rise to the challenge, taking and completing more rigorous coursework while in high school.

Second, the educators at Chelsea High and Bunker Hill are fearlessly disrupting the status quo. They are collaborative partners, willing to do whatever is required to implement this model with fidelity.

Third, and perhaps the most under-appreciated ingredient, the city of Chelsea is investing in the future. The city recognizes that hardworking immigrant families will not achieve the American Dream if their children aren’t able to attend college. They are using municipal dollars to cover tuition and fees for Early College Students who continue their studies at Bunker Hill.

For a low-income community with an extremely lean municipal budget, this is highly unusual. Chelsea has done the right thing for its residents by putting educational opportunity first. These costs are rising as the city’s Early College program grows. With COVID-19 bearing down hard on the city, revenues have dropped and other expenses have risen. But like David, the city isn’t going to retreat. One way or another, it will make good on its promise to Early College students.

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