Early College Classes are Booming — Why Aren’t More Maine Students Graduating?

Nov 28, 2016

With college trips, applications and financial aid deadlines approaching, the next few weeks will be stressful for many of Maine’s high school seniors.

New partnerships between high school and colleges are being designed to make that postsecondary transition easier, but the programs aren’t producing more college graduates, and educators are searching for the reasons why.

Lewiston High School senior Halima Aden is the kind of student that you think might face a lot of obstacles on the way to college. She came to the U.S. from Somalia as a child, and even now, college seems foreign to her family.

“Well, my parents didn’t speak English,” Aden says. “They don’t really know the concepts of college. So when you tell them about college, they just think it’s a step up from high school. They don’t know that you pay for college. That you live in the dorm. So it was kind of hard to explain to them.”

And yet despite still being a high schooler, Aden is already in college. Three days a week, she takes an online class on early childhood education through a partnership between Lewiston High School and Central Maine Community College.

Last year, she even headed to the CMCC campus in person to take a college-level sociology class.

“It was terrifying,” Aden says. “You’re like the little kid in a high school classroom. I’m scared to say something that might not sound sophisticated or articulate, and I don’t want to come off as this dumb kid. So you get scared, but after a while you get used to your classmates.”

Aden is one of a growing number of students in early college and dual enrollment programs in Maine. These are partnerships between high schools and local colleges, designed so students can receive college credit and get some exposure to the new environment, while still having the support of a high school around them.

“It allows the students to see what college is like,” says Doug Dumont, the aspirations coordinator at Lewiston High School. “Because a lot of students say, ‘There’s no way I can take a college-level class.’ And then when they see that yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s really no different from an upper-level, higher high school class.”

These programs have exploded over the past few years. As just one example, the University of Maine at Fort Kent now enrolls more than 700 high school students in its Rural U program. And its been embraced by schools like Maranacook Community High School in Readfield.

At Maranacook, nearly half of all students are enrolled in a college course through a partnership with Thomas College. Assistant Principal Kristen Levesque emphasizes that the classes aren’t designed for high achievers. Many are for those at risk.

“It’s an early intervention to help them graduate from high school,” Levesque says. “A kid can say when they were 14, 15 years old, they took a summer class and got an A in college, they can get through high school. I think it’s definitely a form of dropout prevention.”

The results so far are promising. The number of Maine high schoolers enrolling in college is going up every year. And Maranacook, in particular, has seen its graduation rate go from 80 percent in 2013 to 90 percent in 2015.

But there’s a rub.

“We hear often that [schools] help get their students to college,” says Wendy Ault, the president of the MELMAC Education Foundation, which gives money to schools to help students reach college. “But then a semester, two semesters, three semesters later, they see them. And they’re back in town. And too often they’re working at the same job they had when they were in high school.”

While more students may be enrolling in college in Maine, almost half aren’t finishing within six years. The numbers are far worse in rural places like Washington County, where less than 40 percent of students who entered college in 2007 actually finished.

Researcher Lisa Plimpton views this as a financial problem. She says the number of low-income students going to college in Maine has nearly doubled over the last eight years. But those new college students don’t have a large safety net to fall back on.

“And any kind of financial emergency or unexpected expense can knock people out of college,” she says. “Even when they’ve got two or three years under their belt.”

So how do you help a student both financially and academically? Ault says her organization is trying a new approach. It’s now giving high schools the resources to help them stay in contact with students after they’ve already gone off to college. The idea is to use existing relationships to help students in their new environment.

“In a perfect world, it would be a nice hand-off from high school to college,” she says. “But that’s not what we’re observing. They still look back to high school.”

Aden says early college classes have shown her that she is ready for life after high school.

“College was only scary because I’d never been. But I’ve seen the colleges, been in classes, took the classes,” she says. “So it doesn’t really scare me as much. And I’m like, ready for it. It’s like any other classroom I’ve been into. Because I’ve already taken the class. Whether it’s an online class or an on-campus class, it won’t really phase me because I’ve already tried it.”

But Aden says it makes her comfortable knowing she has support along the way. Not just from the school, but from a local lawyer who serves as a mentor.

Few low-income students have that sort of resource. But educators say this one-on-one, lasting support may be the key to getting students into college and helping them graduate.