Review of the Funding, Programming and Outcomes of Early College Programs at Maine’s Public Universities
February 17, 2021
The Early College programs at Maine’s Public Universities are a critical resource for Maine’s high school students state-wide. Students benefit from expanded curriculum offerings, particularly in rural schools or in content areas where there are teacher shortages. Student outcomes include high course success rate, confidence in their ability to complete college level work, increased college aspirations, higher GPA’s (Grade Point Averages) and persistence rates, and higher college graduation rates. While all students who take a University of Maine System Early College course benefit, underserved students benefit most.
Executive Director of Early College, University of Maine System
Justin Young, Bob Zuercher and Haliru Omosun
University of Maine System Office of Institutional Research
Parker will graduate from high school with a certificate in Becoming a Business Professional from the University of Maine at Machias. He was recently accepted at a private university in New England. Because of his Early College coursework, he will be able to earn an MBA in 4 years.
Definitions and Course Modality
Early College (EC) is an umbrella term that refers to any program in which high school students earn college credit while still in high school. The term dual enrollment is also widely used nationally and in Maine because it reflects the high school student’s experiences and outcomes as they are enrolled in high school and college simultaneously. There are three primary course modalities at Maine’s Public Universities: on campus (or at a campus center), online, or concurrent enrollment (CE), which include courses taught at the student’s high school. CE courses are taught by college-approved high school teachers in collaboration with university faculty. CE courses include Bridge Academy, which adds college level courses to Career and Technical Education programming.
Early College (EC) programs within the University of Maine System (UMS) have experienced significant growth recently due to commitment from system and university leaders, State support, and collaboration with the Department of Education. Maine’s Public Universities already served their local communities, and many provided statewide outreach. However, each program operated independently. System-driven growth has been strategic, with a focus on equity. Equity in EC means that the students serve reflect the demographic, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity of the K-12 student population (Zinth, 2019). Nationally, equity in EC programs is a concern, “Evidence shows that students, especially those who otherwise might not have a clear path to postsecondary education, are often shortchanged. They never learn about dual enrollment; their parents can’t afford the tuition, fees, or transportation to campus; their K-12 education didn’t prepare them well enough; or they’re excluded altogether from the opportunity” (Mehl, Wyner, Barnett, Fink, & Jenkins, 2020, p. 2). Several program changes were implemented system-wide to avoid these pitfalls. In order to ensure historically underrepresented students realize the full benefits of EC courses, programs must be deliberately designed to close the equity gap (Mehl et al., 2020). The student-centered alignment and collaboration between all seven of Maine’s Public Universities is addressing the equity gap.
Early College Funding
The University of Maine System (UMS) relies on State-supported funding sources to provide free or low cost Early College (EC) opportunities to Maine’s high school students. Maine’s public high school students and homeschooled students are eligible to receive up to 12 tuition-free credits per year through the Aspirations program, which is administered by the Department of Education (DOE). The 12-credit limit includes courses at both the University of Maine System and Maine’s community colleges combined. Each campus receives approximately half of the in-state tuition rate per credit in reimbursement from Aspirations, while campuses waive the remaining portion and absorb the remaining unfunded cost. UMS has established an EC tuition rate, which is equal to the Aspirations reimbursement, to provide discounted tuition to any student attending high schools in Maine that do not qualify for Aspirations funding. The Aspirations/EC tuition rate for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) is $138.25 per credit.
Because of the Maine Department of Education’s support and that of the Maine Legislature and the Governor, as well as the commitment of UMS to expand early college opportunities, enrollment has exploded over the past five years and has increasingly exceeded the amount appropriated through the Aspirations line in the Department’s budget. The Department of Education has generously continued to make other Department funding resources available to close that gap and ensure equitable access to eligible students under Title 20-A, Chapter 208-A, including an additional $1.1 million in FY20. While the Maine Community College System (MCCS) is fully reimbursed by Maine DOE for early college credits it awards, in Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) UMS universities waived the $3,333,967 in tuition costs for early college students not subsidized by the Department and both systems now waive most fees which can otherwise be a barrier to low-income students. It is estimated that UMS will waive about $2.5M in fees for FY21, in addition to the tuition waivers provided.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for EC offerings, as Maine high schools look to fill new gaps in student schedules and curriculum created by the need to offer in-person, hybrid and remote instruction and educators being on family or medical leave. At the same time, the financial pressures posed by the pandemic means that the DOE has less flexibility than in year’s past to cover overages. UMS, MCCS, and the Maine DOE are working together to draft possible changes to ensure fair, equitable and predictable access for future years.
An operational budget supports system-level and individual campus programming. The Early College Executive Director leads collaborative efforts with all EC programs. EC administrators at each campus recruit students, build relationships with partner high schools, train and assist school counselors, process student applications, provide college advising to students and their families, support students during the semester, and serve as the primary front-line liaisons between the high school and university. Students from 196 high schools in Maine have accessed EC courses at Maine’s Public Universities, which includes every public high school in the state.
Program Context and Goals
Maine’s high school graduation rate of 87% is comparable with the New England average of 88% (2019). College enrollment rates, however, reveal a widening gap. Maine’s college enrollment decreased from 62% in 2011 to 58% in 2018, while the New England rate has increased from 62% to 66% during that same timeframe. Similarly, while college persistence rates have remained stable in some New England states, Maine’s persistence rates have varied from year to year. Maine’s college completion rate is improving. In 2013, Maine’s 6 year completion rate was 50%, compared with 58% in New England (Judd, 2020). For 2019 those numbers increased to 62% for Maine and 65% for New England.
Since receiving direct funding from the State, in addition to the tuition reimbursement that was already in place, the Early College (EC) program at the University of Maine System (UMS) has focused on providing equitable access to high quality programs, raising college aspirations, and ensuring affordability to reduce college debt. EC program growth has emphasized career exploration and Maine’s workforce needs, which aligns with the State’s 10-year economic plan. System and university leaders committed to student-centered, system-wide collaboration and alignment. The first steps involved collectively and systemically eliminating barriers. Barriers to access, particularly in rural areas, include strict admissions requirements, course fees, and transportation to a college campus (Roach, Gamez Vargas, & David, 2015).
Student Support, Advising, and Career Exploration Pathways
Early College (EC) teams at each campus provide direct support to students and their families, as well as help students access campus resources. The University of Maine System (UMS) EC Program also contracted with the company NetTutor, which provides online tutoring services for hundreds of content areas 24 hours per day/7 day per week. All high school students receive this tutoring service free of charge.
The open access policy further allows UMS students the opportunity to select any course they have met the prerequisites for. While these broad opportunities provide many choices, students can be overwhelmed by the vast array of options. All campuses offer gateway courses, which are highly-transferable, foundational courses such math and English, as well as common general education courses including psychology and sociology. While gateway and general education courses are valuable, the best programs “help students understand the degrees and pathways that match their life goals and may lead to well-paying careers” (Mehl et al., 2020, p. 31).
Expanded Opportunities and Advising in Collaboration with the Maine Community College System
As joint stewards of the Aspirations program in collaboration with the Department of Education, the University of Maine System and Maine Community College System have partnered to ensure consistency and equity in Maine’s public early college programming. Jointly, Maine’s public colleges and universities have built and strengthened student-focused partnerships to support Maine’s high schools. These partnerships have ensured that students benefit from a wide range of curricular offerings, career exploration, and support.
The following research questions were designed to evaluate our progress towards meeting program goals: How has Early College (EC) enrollment changed over time? Which courses do students enroll in? How do students perform in their EC courses? Which students are accessing EC courses? What percentage of EC students matriculate? How do EC students perform when they matriculate to the University of Maine System (UMS)?
Several key factors have contributed to enrollment growth of 76% system wide in the past five years. The removal of barriers including fees and strict admissions requirements has been critical to ensuring equitable access. Campuses system-wide enhanced their marketing efforts, and existing relationships between high schools and universities were strengthened while new partnerships were created. State investment enabled campuses to add staff to provide direct student support and college advising, and to serve as liaisons between high schools and universities. The ExplorEC portal made it easier for all students to access courses, regardless of their geographic location or high school participation level. Homeschool families have also realized the value and benefits, and almost 300 homeschool students have accessed Early College (EC) courses since fall 2019. Most recently, campuses have responded to the needs of high schools as demand surged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On average, students enroll in six credit hours per year. According to An and Taylor (2019), one or two courses might yield the strongest results. Additional courses do not seem to yield any additional benefits on outcomes, which is why the Credits with Purpose and Career Exploration Pathways initiatives are so important for any credits above six. For fall 2020, 4% of the credit hours were in-person, 39% were online, and 57% were concurrent enrollment (CE).
Course Enrollment Patterns
In the 2019-2020 school year, Maine’s students enrolled in 481 different courses. However, a closer look at this data reveal that similar courses are counted separately because each institution may use a different catalog number. For example, English 100 course titles include English Composition I and Writing Seminar. English 101 titles include College Composition, College Writing, Composition, and English Composition II. In order to get a better understanding of discrete topics, courses were grouped and assigned to a general category. Then, select course examples and topics were provided within each category. Course examples do not reflect the exact title of each course, and were synthesized for brevity. For example, United States History I, II, Civil: Past/Present/Future, US History Since 1900, US History Since 1877, and Early 20th Century US History 1989-1938 are encompassed in the General Category “History” with United States as the “Select Course Example”.
Course selections include common gateway and general education courses. The greatest participation includes English and STEM related courses. Course subjects fulfill several different purposes. While Early College (EC) was intended to supplement the high school curriculum, EC Administrators are increasingly hearing from high school principals and school counselors that EC is supplanting the high school curriculum. EC is being utilized when there is a teacher shortage (e.g. mathematics, languages), or there are not enough teachers or students to offer advanced courses in small, rural schools (e.g. calculus, statistics). Concurrent enrollment (CE) classes include a mix of courses that the high school would normally offer, as well as unique offerings based on the credentials of particular high school teachers. CE provides an introductory college experience for students who might not be ready for an independent online course. CE offers underprivileged students the opportunity to gain skills and confidence with the benefits of additional class time and support from their high school teacher.
While enrollment in University of Maine System (UMS) early college programs has been steadily increasingly over the past five years, there has been an explosion in enrollment in online or in-person courses taught by UMS faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is directly attributed to high schools turning to Maine’s public universities to fill gaps created by reduced in-person class size limitations, hybrid schedules, multiple modalities, and teacher shortages, as well as students increasing their course load due to the curtailment of employment and extracurricular commitments. This summer, there was a 162% increase in credits and this fall, a 42% from fall 2019. Schools reported being forced to cut Advanced Placement and honors courses, and looked to Early College (EC) to fulfill student needs.
Student demographic data are collected and analyzed with a focus on equity to inform program change. Approximately 54% of Maine students attend rural schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). This is consistent with University of Maine System (UMS) Early College (EC) data, in which the average number of rural students is 56% over the past five years (2015-2020). Race/ethnicity is only reported for publicly funded students, and the percentage of students of color has increased from 9% in 2015 to 12% in 2020 (Maine Department of Education Data Warehouse: Student Enrollment Data, 2021). Approximately 5-6% of UMS EC students between 2015 and 2020 were students of color. However, it is important to note that, on average 27% of students do not report their race/ethnicity. The average number of female students in Maine has been consistent, at 48% from 2015-2020. Female enrollment in EC courses is higher than males, with the 5-year average for females of 59% and males of 39%. This total does not equal 100% due to changes in gender reporting methods over time as described below.
As described in the outcomes section of this report, traditionally underserved students are more likely to remain in college, have higher GPAs, and are more likely to graduate on time. These data underscore the importance of the efforts of UMS EC programs to reduce student barriers to EC course access.
Early College Course Performance
Student success rates in Early College (EC) courses do not vary by demographic background. Success in this context is the completion of courses with a grade of C- or higher, which is the threshold needed to help ensure course transferability when students enroll in college. The average, overall success rate of all programs has a narrow range of 91-93%, and has been consistent over time. This success rate is high regardless of program type or student demographics. It is noteworthy that despite the implementation of the system wide open access policy starting with the 2018-19 school year, student performance did not change significantly.
College Aspirations and Enrollment Rate
Students who take Early College (EC) classes within the University of Maine System (UMS) enroll at a rate that is about 12% higher than students with no EC courses. This is consistent with multiple national studies, which estimate that EC students are, on average, between 6.7 to 7.4 times more likely to enroll in college than students who do not have EC courses (An & Taylor, 2019). These data support the conclusion that EC is an important tool to raise aspirations and create a college-going culture among Maine’s High School students.
EC courses also help build a bridge between Maine’s high schools and public universities. This is supported by the data that show that if students participate in EC at UMS, they will matriculate at a rate that is 15% higher than non-participants. This benefits students in multiple ways including low cost access to high quality universities, ensuring course transferability, knowledge and understanding of how to use UMS technology (MaineStreet, Brightspace, etc.), and a built in connection to the university through the EC Administrators. Students who participate in pathway and certificate programs will also have a jump-start towards completion of an academic major.
* Exclusions include students still enrolled in UMS Early College as of following fall term (as of October 15) and students who were under the age of 18 as of October 15 in the following fall term.
Course Quality, Grade Point Average (GPA), and College Persistence
Early College (EC) students have higher GPAs compared to students with no EC courses. The following data are based on Maine EC students who enroll in University of Maine System institutions after high school graduation.
EC students are more likely to persist during their first year of college. The graph below shows retention rates for students who graduated from high school, matriculated in 2018, and returned to that university the subsequent fall. Males and under-represented minorities benefit most, with improved retention rates of 12% and 14% respectively, when compared to similar peers with no EC courses. Persistence is understudied nationally, but the few studies available confirm that EC participation increases first-year persistence (An & Taylor, 2019).
Degree completion is the final, and perhaps the most important indicator of Early College (EC) program success. The minimum increase in percentage points for all University of Maine System (UMS) EC students (compared to non EC participants) was 12 which is higher than national studies which range from 7 to 8 percentage points (An & Taylor, 2019). Graduation data also show how participation in EC can help to decrease the disparity in college outcomes for students who are from rural areas, males, and students of color. For example, while 43% of students of color with no EC courses graduated in 6 years from a UMS institution, 76% of students of color with EC courses graduated in the same timeframe. Early College benefits all students, but it benefits underrepresented students most. This data further supports the assertion that UMS’ EC programs are helping to close the equity gap in Maine.
The State of Maine has made significant investments in Early College (EC) programs through the Aspirations program administered by the Department of Education (DOE) and through direct funding to the University of Maine System. The University of Maine System (UMS) has also invested in these programs. As stewards of this program, Maine’s Public Universities have collaborated in order to reduce barriers to student access while providing student college advising and support. By collectively waiving over $5.5M in tuition and fees (estimated for FY21), the universities have also demonstrated the commitment to ensuring equitable access for Maine’s public high school students by providing these courses at no or little cost.
The Dual Enrollment Playbook is a compilation of best practices written by prominent researchers and practitioners (Mehl et al., 2020). The authors describe five principles to ensure equity: shared goals that prioritize equity; expand equitable access; support students; provide high quality instruction; and organize teams and develop relationships between high schools and colleges. UMS is working towards and already meeting many of these principles. Equitable access has been expanded and enhanced and will continue as UMS works with the Maine Community College System (MCCS) towards implementing a shared application portal. Students in every high school in Maine will have access to EC programs at all 14 public institutions. Student support and college advising has been a priority of all EC teams at all levels from course application process, career exploration pathways, student check ins and frequent communication, collaboration with school counselors, and 1:1 meetings with students. Next steps include career development courses and a greater focus on advising students on college opportunities and academic programs, particularly during their senior year. High quality instruction is provided by UMS faculty through online and on-campus opportunities, as well as in partnership with local high school teachers. Maine’s Public Universities have developed strong relationships with high schools, with the EC program on the forefront of bridging the gap between high schools and universities. Addressing teacher shortages is an unintended, yet beneficial consequence of UMS outreach.
Early College is a sound investment in Maine’s high school students. Student outcomes demonstrate success at every level. EC students perform well in their classes, are more likely to matriculate, have higher GPAs, persist in college, and are more likely to earn a degree. Outcomes are strongest for rural students, males, and students of color. UMS EC data is consistent with peer-reviewed national literature, “With few exceptions, these results are consistent across multiple studies, contexts, and outcomes… the literature suggests dual enrollment has effects not only on proximal outcomes (e.g., high school graduation and college matriculation), but also on distal outcomes (e.g., college completion) as well. This finding is critical and suggests that the effects of dual enrollment do not fade once students enter college”(An & Taylor, 2019, p. 137).
Despite demonstrated success, EC at UMS is facing a critical funding shortage in the Aspirations program. This issue is historic, yet in prior years DOE was able to fund the excess credits to match program growth. The global pandemic has exacerbated this issue, as demand has skyrocketed while the Aspirations budget has been depleted. In January, 2021 Governor Janet Mills unveiled an FY21 supplemental budget proposal that includes an additional $2.5 million for early college spring courses. However, UMS and MCCS project student demand for these courses will continue to exceed funding resources, even after the pandemic. EC programs have removed gatekeeping to provide equitable access to underserved students, yet Maine’s Public Universities will likely be forced to impose additional credit and headcount limits because of the Aspirations budget shortfall.