By Richard M. Freeland and Daniel M. Asquino
The world needs more good news these days, which makes it a pleasure for us to lead off with some glad tidings on behalf of Massachusetts’ community colleges, state universities and UMass campuses even as we sound the alarm about the need to address a few worrisome trends in higher education.
Last week, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education released its annual accounting of our system’s performance in comparison with other states.
Degrees of Urgency: Why Massachusetts Needs More College Graduates Now comes four years after the Board of Higher Education embraced the Vision Project agenda, a new way of thinking about “state schools.” The Vision Project centers on the goal of becoming a national leader in public higher education, while also stressing the system’s need to strive for greater efficiencies and hold itself accountable for results.
Now, four years into our work to achieve both academic excellence and affordability, we can report the real signs of progress toward reaching our national leadership goals. Highlights include:
State Funding – The joint efforts of the Patrick administration and the Massachusetts Legislature have resulted in significant new dollars for public higher education in the last two years.
College Completion – One-third of our public campuses, including Mount Wachusett Community College, are now meeting or exceeding Vision Project goals for improvement in graduation rates. If we can scale those results across the system, we’ll be a national leader in college completion rates within 10 years.
Meeting Employer Needs for a Skilled Workforce – Mount Wachusett is currently overseeing a $15.9 million, multistate federal TAACCCT grant to provide accelerated training and credentials to students pursuing careers or career advancement in advanced manufacturing.
Closing Achievement Gaps – Through its new Math Modeling initiative, Mount Wachusett is partnering with several area high schools to prepare high school graduates for success in college-level mathematics.
Student Learning – Enrollment in Mount Wachusett’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs is expanding with the addition of new, transferrable courses in organic chemistry, calculus based physics, and calculus III.
Civic Engagement – During the past academic year, Mount Wachusett students performed 144,000 hours of community service throughout North Central Massachusetts, representing a $3.5 million economic impact.
Taxpayer Savings – Since 2011, Massachusetts’ community colleges, state universities and UMass campuses have saved $212 million through a combination of collaborative and individual campus cost-saving efforts.
All good – but we need to pick up the pace of progress. A “perfect storm” of factors – our economy’s need for more college graduates, a projected 9 percent decline in the number of high school graduates in the next six years, and the cumulative impact of historic underfunding of public higher education – threatens the commonwealth’s ability to attract and retain knowledge-based industries that drive economic growth.
Our pool of high-skilled graduates is our single greatest asset in the global marketplace. Yet analyses contained in Degrees of Urgency show that by 2025, Massachusetts’ public higher education system will fall short of meeting the state’s need for new associate’s and bachelor’s degrees by a minimum of 55,000 to 65,000. Without a course correction, those missing degrees will translate into thousands of lost opportunities, as employers struggle to find talent and students discover that they lack the credentials to compete for high-skilled, good-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, other leading technology states – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and in some industry sectors, Texas and California – outperform Massachusetts when it comes to producing high-skilled graduates coveted by business and industry. In every major business and industry sector that drives economic growth, Massachusetts will need to expand its talent pipeline or risk losing its competitive edge.
Degrees of Urgency outlines a “Big Three Completion Plan” to 1) ramp up graduation/student success rates 2) work more aggressively to close achievement gaps and 3) attract and retain more students who are currently not served by the public higher education system. Such a plan isn’t executed on the cheap, though – and despite two good years of state investment, Massachusetts still ranks 26th among the states in funding per full-time student and 46th in state spending on need-based financial aid.
A Higher Education Finance Commission has recommended $475 million in investment in our public higher education system over the next five years, and an additional $210 million in financial aid for our neediest students. Such support would help more students earn certificates and degrees, while also lifting Massachusetts into the ranks of the top 10 systems of public higher education in the U.S. – an imperative, we believe, given the state’s reliance on a highly educated workforce to grow our knowledge-based economy.
Memo to Massachusetts: your public higher education system is on the case. Now more than ever, the public colleges and universities who educate the majority of undergraduates need and deserve your support.
(Richard M. Freeland is the commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts, and Daniel M. Asquino is president of Mount Wachusett Community College.)