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Massachusetts should expand statewide control of its 15 community colleges, according a new report from the Boston Foundation, and create a more centralized system that is judged by performance metrics.

The foundation has deep pockets and strong ties to policymakers, so its recommendations carry weight in Massachusetts. For example, Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s mayor, told The Boston Globe he would support a strong, new governing board and performance-based funding for the colleges.

Currently, each institution has its own Board of Trustees, which are appointed by the governor but operate independently from the state’s Board of Higher Education and its commissioner. That approach “is not conducive to achieving state and regional workforce development goals,” according to the report, which proposes giving more governing and budgetary authority to the state board. The foundation said local boards should be given a diminished, advisory role.

The debate over statewide control of community colleges is hardly new in Massachusetts, having cropped up at least once a decade for the last 30 years. One reason is that states often consider changes to the governance structures of community colleges during an economic downturn. Lawmakers may centralize authority or go in the opposite direction, giving colleges more autonomy -- arguing in either case that the governance shakeup will result in efficiency and better student outcomes.

Nearby Connecticut, for example, is in the process of merging Link to my Connecticut story? - PFits community colleges with the Connecticut State University System under a new statewide board.

Kathy Schatzberg, Cape Cod Community College’s president, said she’s watched a similar discussion unfold three times during her 14 years at the college's helm. “This is only the latest iteration of a debate that’s been going on for decades,” she said.

Most recently, the state’s former governor, Mitt Romney, pushed unsuccessfully for the dismantling of individual governing boards for each community college, as well as for the merger of a few institutions. And a central board oversaw the system prior to being dismantled in 1991.

Schatzberg favors keeping her current board. “The local board is so important in a community college because our mission is so local,” she said, adding that having trustees who focus on the college “keeps you on the straight and narrow.”

The report lays out the need for more consolidated state control by arguing the colleges “have failed to connect in a systemic way with prospective workforce, economic development and employer partners.” As a result there is no way to make broad curriculum changes based on workforce needs, it argues, and colleges and community-based groups compete for resources rather than cooperate.

“There are good programs within the community college system, but the system as a whole is under-resourced, overly fragmented, and not well aligned with the needs of Massachusetts employers in the knowledge economy,” said Paul S. Grogan, the foundation’s president, in a written statement.

Schatzberg said the state’s community colleges are hardly perfect. But she defended their focus on workforce development, saying it had long been a strong emphasis.

“All of us feel we already do this,” she said.

The foundation and Schatzberg agreed on one thing: state budget cuts have hurt community colleges. The report notes that funding across the system was cut by 13 percent per full-time enrolled student from 2004 to 2009, a time during which enrollment rose by more than 11 percent.

Schatzberg said she hoped the report’s spotlight on the impact of declining public investments would help catch the attention of state leaders.

The report cites community college systems in several other states as examples of strong, effective governance. Virginia in particular gets good marks, in part for meeting workforce demands. And in touting performance-based funding, the report lauds systems in Ohio and Washington.

The foundation's six recommendations are:

  • Clarify the mission of community colleges, with a priority on preparing students to meet critical labor market needs.
  • Strengthen overall community college system governance and accountability.
  • Adopt performance metrics.
  • Better prepare students for community college-level work and graduation.
  • Stabilize community college funding.
  • Form a high-powered leadership coalition to craft a strategy to reform the community college system.

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