Mass Education

Higher ed officials in Massachusetts, where private colleges have long dominated, ask for a major investment in the public system.

October 29, 2014

In Massachusetts, Harvard was there first.

For years, the state relied on it and other private colleges to educate the state’s population. So much so that former Governor Michael Dukakis once said, “We aren't California.... And I don't think it makes sense for us to duplicate that" state's expansive public college systems, thanks to all the private colleges in Massachusetts

Now, state higher education officials are trying to change that – and want to do so by spending about as much per student as California, which has perhaps the nation's top public higher ed system.

In some ways, Massachusetts may have to change and boost its public system. Forty years ago, state public colleges educated only 30 percent of Massachusetts' undergraduates. Now, just over half of the state's undergraduates attend a public.

As privates focus more than ever before on out-of-state and international students and more in-state students are coming to rely on the public colleges, the state’s higher education system is trying to improve its performance and its image.

Even though Massachusetts is an education mecca – Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College, Wellesley College, and the list goes on – the public system there isn’t seen that way.

Instead “public higher education doesn’t have a great reputation among people and families” in Massachusetts, said Richard Freeland, the state Commissioner of Higher Education.

“We have to convince Massachusetts that excellence in higher education is critical to the well-being of the state,” he said.

Freeland hopes to change that. On Tuesday, with the backing of business leaders and a nod from state lawmakers, Freeland’s commission began a campaign to get an additional $685 million over the next five years. Most of that, about $475 million, would go directly to institutions. Another $210 million would go to student financial aid.

How that will fare could depend on the outcome of a close governor’s race and, of course, the legislature. Freeland’s hoping that business leaders and voters help push lawmakers to increase funding and that colleges react by stepping up their game.

The state higher education commission released a report Tuesday called “Degrees of Urgency,” which tries to make the case that Massachusetts, relatively affluent though it is, is in danger of falling behind if it doesn’t invest in public higher education.

A big focus of the report is on the gap between the skills needed for job openings in the state. That focus has a lot of business leaders on board.

One benchmark of success, Freeland said, is that those jobs get filled. To get there, he'd like to see Massachusetts become one of the top 10 states in terms of money spent per public college student.

States in the current top 10 include California and Texas, both known for their strong public higher education systems. But other states on the list, such as Wyoming and Mississippi, might not come immediately to mind as higher education destinations.

Even though public colleges are educating a larger share of Bay Staters, still only 71 percent of the state’s recent high school graduates who get a higher education attend college in the state.

That’s below the national average and notably low compared to other states with robust higher education systems: 91 percent of Californians and Texans, 85 percent of Pennsylvanians and 83 percent of New Yorkers attend a college in their home state.

The public system has 300,000 students at 29 community colleges, nine state universities and five University of Massachusetts campuses.

There’s been a “tectonic shift” in lawmakers interest in putting cash into those places, the president of UMass, the state flagship, has said.

One group of faculty, staff, students and alumni, which calls itself Public Higher Education Network Of Massachusetts, or PHENOM, praised efforts to get tens of millions more each year, but worried the higher ed system was too focused on workforce development training and performance-based funding.

One of its leaders, Max Page, an architecture professor at UMass Amherst, says the liberal arts could be undermined if higher ed advocates rely on industry needs to ask for more money so the state can train more people for job openings.

“That’s only one purpose of public universities and colleges – and that’s our big concern and we worry it skews the curriculum to continued underfunding of some areas,” Page said.

The group also worries about performance funding, which is already being used in the community colleges. “If we want to increase graduation rates for minority students at a small community college, depriving the campus of funds for failing to reach certain benchmarks will not enhance the college’s ability to achieve its goal,” the group said in a statement.

Freeland said lawmakers want accountability for any new money.

“We’re not going to be credible with the legislature if we don’t hold ourselves accountable but just ask for more money – that’s just Politics 101 in 2014,” he said.

The state also competes others in the Northeast for students. The region is seeing a significant decline in the number of high school graduates. Massachusetts is expected to have about 9 percent fewer high school students graduating each year by the end of the decade than at its beginning.

Some colleges in the region have reacted by sending recruiters across the country, out to places like California or Texas. Freeland – like his colleagues in places like Iowa, Ohio and West Virginia that also face stagnant or declining numbers of high school graduates – wants to expand the number of adults getting or completing their degrees.

Some states, like Georgia, have moved to close or merge public colleges that see their enrollment flag. This is a fate Freeland wants to avoid. A fight to reorganize public colleges during Mitt Romney’s time as governor created political contretemps but resulted in no closures.

 “I am quite convinced,” Freeland said of the possibility of another such fight, “that that would not be the best use of our political energies.”


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