The rate at which Massachusetts residents earn college degrees will pivot from growth to decline by 2022 unless the state’s public higher education system, which educates more than half of all undergraduates, is able to increase the number of students who enroll and earn diplomas, according to a newly release report from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.
The Degree Gap, the Department’s annual Vision Project report on the status of public higher education in the Commonwealth, was released at an event held at The Boston Foundation on June 8. The report suggests that employers who are already having difficulty meeting current workforce needs in high-demand fields will face even greater challenges in the next few years, as the state’s high school population continues to decline at the same time that an estimated 660,000 college-educated workers plan to retire. Of those job openings requiring post-secondary education or training, two-thirds will require a college degree.
Increasingly, the higher education system will also be called upon to leverage its traditional role of offering associate’s and bachelor’s degrees by also offering certificate and continuing education programs to ensure that students develop career skills needed to be successful. The demographic challenges facing the state mean that public colleges and universities are likely to fall short of meeting the need for new associate and bachelor’s degrees by 55,000 to 65,000. The Degree Gap predicts that 80% of those “missing” degrees needed to fill the state’s talent pool in the next decade will be at the baccalaureate level or higher.
Mount Wachusett Community College is featured in the report for its innovative Math Modeling program, which provides math remediation to high school seniors, and a new dual enrollment partnership with Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical High School. The Math Modeling program, launched in 2013, has nearly quadrupled in size and continues to expand. It is offered Leominster High School, the Leominster Center for Technical Education Innovation, Fitchburg High School, Gardner High School Monty Tech, Murdock High School in Winchendon, and Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham, with two additional North Central Massachusetts high schools planning to participate this fall.
“The Degree Gap highlights important issues our Commonwealth must address to prepare our workforce to fill jobs which are currently going unfilled, and help employers find skilled employees in the future,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “It’s clear we need more degree earners and certificate program graduates, including those in the critical STEM fields, and I am pleased our administration has already taken steps to start tackling these challenges.”
“Studies have shown that the vast majority of Massachusetts job openings in the next decade will require a degree or certificate beyond high school, and our administration is working hard to expand training and educational opportunities,” said Secretary of Education Jim Peyser. “The higher education system is a critical partner in helping our students and workers meet the needs of our changing economy, and we are focusing on ensuring they are prepared to succeed in college and in their careers.”
“The Degree Gap affirms that the state’s public higher education system must redouble its efforts to help more students earn college credentials, especially those from underrepresented communities who are much less likely to earn degrees,” said Carlos E. Santiago, Commissioner of Higher Education. “I will urge the leadership of our system to focus on what we are calling ‘The Big Three’ priorities for the coming academic year: making college more accessible and affordable, closing achievement gaps, and improving completion rates.”
The report’s findings align with several recent economic forecasts that project that a lack of available talent may constrain economic growth. Although the Commonwealth has more adult degree-holders than any other state—51.5 percent of adults ages 25–54—the state is projected to end the decade with fewer working age college-educated residents than it began with unless the rate of degree production improves.
“Our aging population and slow-grow¬ing labor force are expected to curb job growth significantly in coming years,” said Michael Goodman, professor and executive director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and co-editor of MassBenchmarks, the journal of the Massachusetts economy published by the UMass Donahue Institute in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “This makes closing the achievement gap and improving access to affordable and high-quality higher education an essential economic and social imperative.”
“Massachusetts’ knowledge economy richly rewards those who are trained or well educated, but rebuffs those who are not,” said Paul Grogan, President and CEO of The Boston Foundation. “Knitting together the needs of our workforce with our educational infrastructure is crucial to encourage economic mobility, stem the rising tide of inequality, and ensure the growth and prosperity of our Commonwealth.”
The Degree Gap also examines capacity issues in two programs preparing students for careers in high demand fields: nursing and computer science. Officials at several public campuses report that they are unable to grow their programs for a host of reasons, ranging from lack of space and faculty hiring constraints to a shortage of clinical placements for nursing candidates.
The report details a series of new state and local campus initiatives to address The Degree Gap, including:
• The Commonwealth Commitment: Beginning in fall 2016, students in selected majors who begin at a community college and continue their education at a state university or UMass campus will receive a series of financial incentives to earn a bachelor’s degree in less than four and a half years, at an average savings of more than $5,000 per student.
• 100 Males to College: The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Westfield State University, Springfield Technical Community College, Framingham State University and MassBay Community College are collaborating with public schools in Springfield and Framingham to create college-going opportunities for low-income male students who would be the first in their family to attend college. Of the first cohort of Springfield students, 56 of the 59 seniors were accepted to college.
• STEM Starter Academy: All fifteen community colleges are offering free summer sessions at which local high school students tackle remedial math coursework, take part in science and engineering challenges and visit local employers to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. A recent program evaluation found that STEM Starter Academy students enrolled as full-time students at a rate 13 percentage points higher than the general community college student population.
A copy of The Degree Gap report can be downloaded here.