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Schools, businesses want early college program greatly expanded for underrepresented students — but will Mass. do it?

LAWRENCE — The high school juniors and seniors recently sat in a Northern Essex Community College class, excited to become doctors, nurses, and medical assistants. But first, they faced years of schooling and difficult textbook readings.

“Many of you said you don’t like to read — I’ve been there,” said professor Kathy Hudson, asking how they’d tackle a 125-page chapter on pulse, temperature, and blood pressure.

“You break it up,” a student answered. Another replied: “Put your phone away.”

The class, “Learning Strategies for Success in Health Care Careers,” is part of the Massachusetts Early College Initiative, which aims to help high school students from low-income families and communities of color earn free college credits and receive support, making higher education more attainable. Launched in 2017, Massachusetts’ program now includes 4,500 students or 1.8 percent of high schoolers, but the state’s share of students enrolled still lags behind other states such as Texas and North Carolina.

Seemingly everyone from school superintendents to Governor Charlie Baker agrees that Massachusetts’ program should grow, but a debate swirls around how much the state should spend on expansion. Baker’s administration recently proposed a $7.3 million increase, to total $18.3 million next year, though advocates are calling for more. A legislative bill would create a program trust fund with public dollars and donations from businesses clamoring for a more skilled, more diverse workforce.

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