Time to Step Up on Public Higher Ed


Throughout its history, Massachusetts hasn’t paid much attention to public higher education.

And until fairly recently, one could make the case that there simply wasn’t much reason to. There were few of these institutions and a corresponding bevy of private colleges and universities — from Harvard to Williams; from Wellesley to Smith — that took care of most of the heavy lifting when it came to educating our young people.

And then, when there was reason to pay more attention — starting a few decades ago when the private colleges began focusing on educating people from around the world, not from across the Commonwealth — state leaders seemed more preoccupied with other matters, especially K-12 education, for which they have always had a soft spot.

One could say that the state undersupported public higher education, and in a number of ways, because it could choose to do so and seemingly get by.

Not anymore.

That’s the underlying message of a revealing report commissioned by the state Department of Higher Education titled “Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Public Higher Education,” which offers the first comprehensive view of where the Commonwealth’s public higher education system stands in comparison to other states (see related story page 6).

Sifting through the document’s 84 pages, one could come to the conclusion that the state isn’t doing so bad. It’s ahead of national averages in some measured categories, such as the percentage of students who go on to college and the number of people who complete college. And it’s not far off the average in most others, such as achievement gaps in college preparedness and aligning public degree programs with future needs in various fields, such as healthcare.

But what the report attempts to drive home is that being average is not good enough — and it certainly won’t be in the years to come — and there is a steep price to pay for not being a national leader in public higher education. That’s because statistics show that ever-increasing numbers of jobs will require some college education, and that more students who do attend college are turning to public institutions, largely due to accessibility and price.

Meanwhile, the demographic character of the country is changing, and groups that are now in the minority, such as blacks and Hispanics, will soon comprise the majority, and the Commonwealth is clearly trailing leading states when it comes to enrollment rates involving these constituencies and overall achievement gaps.

As Richard Freeland, the state’s commissioner of Higher Education, told BusinessWest, the state’s only significant resource is brain power, and if it fails to make full and effective use of that resource, it will not be able to compete for what is fast becoming the most precious commodity on earth: jobs.

There were several hundred people on hand at the State House late last month to hear Freeland, Gov. Deval Patrick, UMass President Robert Caret, and others talk about the report and make the case that the state simply must make a greater commitment to public higher education in the years and decades to come. Those same messages will be sent at the Western Mass Business Expo on Oct. 11, when Freeland and a panel of public higher-education leaders and representatives of the business community will assess “Time to Lead.”

It is our hope that people will listen and that the state’s leaders will finally get the point. While there may (that’s may) have been a time when the state could get away with not being a national leader in public higher ed, that’s certainly not the case now.

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