UMass Commonwealth Collegiate Academy Gives High Schoolers a Head Start on Their Degrees

A student with glasses gestures with his hands while talking Image by Ed Brennen
Greater Lowell Technical High School senior Sneyker Medrano, who plans to study mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, is getting a jump start on his degree through the UMass Commonwealth Collegiate Academy.

By Ed Brennen

High school students getting a head start on their college credits is nothing new. In fact, Advanced Placement exams have been around since the 1960s.
But the UMass Commonwealth Collegiate Academy (CCA), an early college pilot program launched last fall at UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth, provides students with more than just credits on their college transcript.
The program offers free college-level courses that are co-taught by college and high school faculty, giving high school juniors and seniors a taste of what to expect from professors. During the summer, students can even experience living on campus.
Two young men pose for a photo standing outside Image by Ed Brennen
Business major Eduardo Benfica, left, and psychology major Izaias Bautista are among 26 first-year UML students who got a jump on their degrees through the UMass Commonwealth Collegiate Academy.
More than 100 students from four area high schools – Billerica, Dracut, Methuen and Greater Lowell Technical – earned college credits through the CCA last year. Of those students, 26 are starting college at UMass Lowell this fall.
Greater Lowell Tech grad Eduardo Benfica is one of them. A first-generation college student originally from Brazil, Benfica already has two courses (six credits) under his belt as he begins his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in business.
“UMass Lowell was an option I was considering for college, and the CCA helped me make my decision,” Benfica says. “It was a good opportunity for me to get a feel of what the school is like.”
Funded by a $330,000 grant from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation and a renewable Incubator Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the CCA delivers free courses remotely to students right in their high school classrooms – eliminating the need for travel and thereby expanding access. Students are recommended to the program by their high school teachers.
A woman gestures with her hands while speaking to students Image by Ed Brennen
Cheryl Llewellyn, associate professor and chair of the sociology department, teaches a Social Problems course to CCA students in the summer UPRISE program.
“We want to remove all barriers, especially for those students who wouldn’t normally go to college,” says Francine Coston, associate director of UML’s early college initiatives.
Nearly a dozen UML faculty members teach CCA courses in ethics, economics, business law, environmental science, accounting and forensics, mostly online but sometimes in person at the high schools.
Karen Spohn, an accounting adjunct faculty member in the Manning School of Business, co-teaches Financial Accounting at Billerica High. Besides saving students money, she says, the program is a valuable way for them to explore interests and build a strong academic foundation.
“Students have a great deal of adjustments and learning to do in the first semester of college,” says Spohn, who teaches the course in person when she can. “Through this program, they gain a level of comfort and confidence.”  
Over the summer, 28 CCA students got a taste of campus life by staying at University Suites for the first two weeks of a four-week program called Understanding Power, Resisting Injustice, Summer Experience, or UPRISE
Two young men play connect four outdoors while two other people look on Image by Ed Brennen
First-year psychology major Izaias Bautista, second from left, plays Connect 4 with Greater Lowell Tech senior Sneyker Medrano during a summer cookout on South Campus to celebrate the completion of the UPRISE program.
Part of UML’s Launch! Summer Programs, UPRISE included a three-credit Social Problems course, taught by Sociology Dept. Chair and Assoc. Prof. Cheryl Llewellyn and Labor Education Program Director Elizabeth Pellerito, that covered topics such as the climate crisis, online bullying and union organizing.
“Not many students get sociology credits through dual enrollment, and if they do, it's usually Intro to Sociology, not a course like Social Problems,” says Director of Advising Operations, Technology and Events Justin Gerstenfield, who hopes UPRISE will become a “signature summer experience for high school students.”
While on campus, students went kayaking at the UML Bellegarde Boathouse, played pickleball at the Campus Recreation Center and enjoyed a cookout on South Campus.
“It was fun living on campus and seeing what it’s like to be in a dorm,” says Greater Lowell Tech grad Emily Kiefer, who plans to attend Middlesex Community College before transferring to UML to study studio art. “I always wanted to go to college, and (the CCA) gave me a boost. It’s made me want to go to college even more and learn different things.”
A student looks at a paper while standing in front of several other seated students Image by Ed Brennen
UMass Commonwealth Collegiate Academy students exchange ideas during the UPRISE summer program, held on campus.
UML’s partnerships are expanding this fall to include Woburn and Revere high schools, and Coston anticipates that enrollment will approach 200 students.
“The hope is that students can earn as many as 30 credits by the time they graduate from high school, giving them one year of college credit under their belt,” says Coston, who notes that the CCA is particularly beneficial for first-gen college students and those from underrepresented communities.
Statewide, the program is projected to expand to UMass Amherst and UMass Boston and eventually serve as many as 25,000 students.  
Sneyker Medrano, who is entering his senior year at Greater Lowell Tech, plans to keep earning college credits through the CCA before studying mechanical engineering at UML.
“UMass Lowell is my first option, and now, doing all these CCA classes, it solidifies that,” Medrano says. “I feel like I’ve been handed a great opportunity.”