HIGHLIGHTING NEW DATA showing greater academic success among high school students who take college courses, education experts called Wednesday for Massachusetts to continue investing in early college programs and broaden access to thousands more students.

The early college courses available at roughly three dozen high schools have made a sizable impact on closing achievement gaps and improving equitable outcomes for students, analysts found in a study released by the Baker administration. Students who participated in the programs are enrolling in higher education at a rate 20 percentage points higher than their school and state peers, the Department of Higher Education said.

Enrollment was more than 2,300 in 2020 and is projected to reach 4,200 students in fiscal year 2021, and proponents want to ensure that Massachusetts reaches a long-term goal nearly four times as high. Getting 16,000 students to participate, they said, would make major progress toward improving access to higher education for families that might view it as unaffordable.

“By getting to 16,000 students, we would go 40 percent of the way to doubling the number of low-income students in this state who earn a college degree,” Board of Higher Education Chair Chris Gabrieli said during a virtual panel event. “That’s not 100 percent. There’s a lot of other students and a lot of other ways, but 40 percent of that goal would be a pretty big contribution.”

The initiative was launched in 2018 with eight programs in high-need, low-income school districts, enabling students to experience college coursework and earn college credits before they graduate from high school, all without cost to them or their families.

In 2019, students earned 5,088 college credits, collectively saving at least $1 million in tuition and fee costs they would have incurred at a college or university, according to a presentation Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Policy Analyst Pierre Lucien delivered.

Achieving equity has been a key focus of the programs, and early evidence indicates success on that front, the analysis shows. Two-thirds of students enrolled in the programs identify as Black or Latinx, and a majority of the schools that offer the courses have student populations predominantly of color.

Nearly nine in 10 Black students and more than seven in 10 Latinx students who participated in early college courses enrolled in a college within six months of graduating high school. Those participation rates were higher than school peers by 25 percentage points for Black students and 30 percentage points for Latinx peers.

“With the proviso that this is a data snapshot and not yet indicative of a sustained trend, I am cautiously optimistic about these results, especially for students of color,” Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said. “At a time when we see racial equity gaps widening, it is encouraging to see the impact of Early College as an effective strategy to propel Black and Latinx students to successful college completion.”

Educators whose schools offered the option reported seeing more qualitative benefits for students, too. In Chelsea, which was one of the first districts to adopt the program, former superintendent Mary Bourque noticed a difference “immediately.”

“Students who had the early college experience were more confident, they began to believe in themselves, they were more willing to take academic risks, they were more willing to set life goals and move toward them,” Bourque said. “Early college is game-changing. It is game-changing for students, for families, it gives hope to families and it shows them a college education for their children is achievable.”

State education officials on Wednesday awarded designations to six new early college programs scheduled to begin offering courses in fall 2020: Durfee High School and Bridgewater State University; Durfee High School and Bristol Community College; Hopkins Academy and Greenfield Community College; Lynn Classical High School and Salem State University; Lynn English High School and Salem State University; and Somerville High School and Cambridge College.

There are now 37 different high schools and 19 colleges and universities that have partnered to offer early college programs.

However, some speakers said Wednesday they believe Massachusetts leaders should move more quickly to expand the program even further. Juana Matias, a former state representative who is now the chief operating officer of MassINC, said the current pace of growth would not reach 16,000 participating students until 2032.

“There are decades and decades of students who would excel so greatly if they had access to early college,” she said.

Funding early college courses for that many students would cost Massachusetts about $20 million per year, Gabrieli said, describing that as “not a number that is breathtaking” under state budgeting standards.

How lawmakers prioritize the program amid a budget crisis of unknown proportions remains to be seen.

Gabrieli said many communities have indicated they are willing to direct new dollars they hope to receive through the 2019 Student Opportunity Act toward early college, but described funding as the “biggest rate limit” to the program’s success.

Rep. Jeff Roy, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Higher Education Committee, told the panel Wednesday that he would make early college “one of my priorities in the next legislative session.”

“We in the Legislature are encouraged by what we see in the data, and we certainly want to build on it and provide robust programs throughout the commonwealth,” Roy said.