BOSTON (SHNS) – Enrollment in early college programs in Massachusetts has continually increased over the past three years, even while the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many teenagers’ post-high school planning into flux.

Data presented to state education officials Thursday showed a total of 2,864 students enrolled in early college programs in 2021, up from 2,512 last year and 1,140 in 2019.

The Baker administration began officially designating early college programs, partnerships that allow students to take college courses and earn the accompanying credits while still in high school, in 2018.

Members of the Board of Higher Education and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education reviewed statistics on early college enrollment and outcomes at an early college joint committee meeting held by videoconference.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education policy analyst Pierre Lucien said that early college programs “sent more than twice as many students to college from 2019 to 2020.”

The data Lucien presented showed that in 2020, 738 early college students enrolled in higher education within six months of graduating from high school, up from 273 in 2019. Because more high school seniors participated in the programs in 2020, the percentage of graduates enrolling in college actually declined, from 76 percent in 2019 to 63 percent in 2020.

“It is fair to assume that this decline is associated with the pandemic,” he said.

Kristin Hunt, the early college director at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the pandemic “is taking a toll on students and on school communities, including in our early college community.”

“Programs have relayed that students and their parents are hesitant to make long-term plans regarding college next year, as they just don’t feel confident and comfortable and sure of what to expect in the coming year, both in terms of community but also their family experiences,” she said.

Education officials have been keeping an eye on completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a key indicator of interest in attending college.

This year’s FAFSA completion rates among early college students are “nearly on pace” with 2019 levels, Lucien said, and remain above the rates for their school peers.

The early college figures also suggested areas where the programs can improve, Lucien said. He said enrollment has been majority female across the last three years, indicating more can be done to recruit and support male students, and said that more economically disadvantaged students could also be recruited.

A majority of early college students are Black or Latinx, Lucien said.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s $45.6 billion budget plan for next fiscal year includes about $7 million toward early college across different line items, Education Secretary James Peyser said.

Ed Lambert, the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said the funding level Baker proposed for next year represents about a 50 percent increase and a “solid commitment” to early college.

“I think the $7 million would put us on that step ladder of annual goals to achieve the overall goal of having tens of thousands of students enrolled in these programs,” he told the News Service.

Lambert said business leaders are very interested in early college programs because they not only provide a college pathway for students but in many cases also preparation for a future career.

“The thing we think is incredibly important about these programs is they’re helping in the overall redesign of high schools, which just needs to take place,” he said.