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.
Each course modality varies in accessibility to students, which is why programs with a wide variety of modalities are most equitable. On campus courses are least accessible because students need to provide their own transportation and coordinate their high school and college schedules. Online courses are available to students statewide, but students must have access to technology, broadband internet, and be self-motivated and well-prepared for independent work. Concurrent enrollment (CE) courses are the most accessible, because they are integrated into the student’s normal school day. Courses are often offered over a full year instead of a semester. Students meet the same learning outcomes as the on-campus course, but have the additional time and support of their high school teacher. This can help ease the transition to college level expectations for students that might not be considering college in their future plans. However, CE course offerings are limited because not all high school teachers have the credentials needed for approval by college faculty. More recently, universities have offered a modality referred to as “EC plus”, in which a cohort of students are enrolled in an online course. The course content is delivered by university faculty, but the high school teacher provides classroom support. This model provides access and student support when teachers cannot be approved to teach independently by university faculty, but are willing to serve as a bridge between the university course and their students.