Opinion

OPINION

Don’t Limit Access to Higher Education

By most accounts, we are now entering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Nationally, the signs abound: the loss of home value, the meltdown in the stock market, the rise in unemployment, collapse of the credit markets, and a record $1 trillion federal deficit.

As these dramatic changes reverberate through the economy, a college education becomes ever-more important to secure a decent paying job and enter a stable career; studies show the link between higher levels of educational attainment and higher average salaries. Furthermore, certain associate degrees such as those in nursing, allied health, computer science, and manufacturing, pay much greater dividends becaue jobs in these fields are in high demand.

In this environment, individuals are facing hard choices about where to commit to spend their money. Where to go to college and how to pay for higher education ranks among a family’s most important decisions.

One may choose between public and private colleges, with elite private colleges now costing — without room and board — upwards of $40,000 per year. Within the public sector, there are three options: university campuses, state colleges, and community colleges. In Massachusetts, average student charges per year without room and board for these three segments are:

  • $9,585 for the four UMass campuses;
  • $6,400 for the nine state colleges; and
  • $3,862 for the state’s 15 community colleges.

Since community colleges are the least expensive, they are becoming more and more popular as a way to stretch a family’s and student’s limited resources. And people are flocking to these local colleges. Fall 2008 figures show community colleges now dominate enrollment in the state with 89,000 students, compared with 46,928 at the four university campuses, and a total of 37,509 at the nine state college campuses.

This fall, community colleges statewide had an enrollment increase that averaged 5.3%, the largest jump of any segment. Although the Commonwealth’s community colleges offer only the first two years of a baccalaureate degree and a number of two-year career programs, the quality of instruction is superb. Consider that community colleges are teaching institutions with a focus on undergraduate students. Faculty are hired because of their knowledge and their ability to teach, not for research skills.

Springfield Technical Community College, for example, offers 60-plus career programs in business, health professions, computer science, and engineering technology. In addition, the college has a robust liberal arts curriculum leading to transfer to baccalaureate colleges throughout New England. Local private colleges — AIC, Elms, Bay Path, Western New England, and Springfield College — court STCC graduates through agreements that provide guaranteed scholarships for students with good grades.

Many STCC students also transfer to the public institutions, most notably UMass Amherst and Westfield State College.

So, for those worried about the economy and the future, community colleges continue to be the best deal in the state.

However, the current state budget deficit now threatens the accessibility and affordability of public higher education just when Massachusetts residents most need it.

Community colleges are the most lean and efficient segment of higher education, educating more students with less funding. They enroll more than half of public higher-education students, yet receive approximately one-quarter of state funding. Consequently, it will be more difficult for these institutions to absorb major funding cuts without affecting the quality of the education and resources so important to students and to our economic future.

Education is the economic driver for our state, producing the skilled and knowledgeable employees needed by business, schools, and industry — particularly the health care industry.

While cutting funding for education will save money in the very short term, it will represent a far greater loss for our citizens and our state.

Ira Rubenzahl is president of Springfield Technical Community College.

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