We Need to Invest in Education

When Gov. Deval Patrick recently filed a $2 billion capital bond bill to finance infrastructure improvements at all 29 of Massachusetts’ public college and universities, he declared it to be an “emergency law,” meaning that it would go into effect immediately upon passage by the Legislature and his signing.

Little did the governor or anyone else know how apropos that designation would be.

A few days after the filing, Salem State College officials made the difficult decision to close that college’s library based on concerns raised over the structural soundness of the 35-year-old building.

As serious as the situation is at Salem State, this capital bill is not just about some falling bricks and cracked mortar. The reality is that our public colleges and university system are being asked to educate the talent for the emerging industries of the new economy in laboratories and classrooms that are sometimes more than 40 years old.

Investment in our public higher education system is long overdue. Massachusetts devotes only 2.8% of its capital expenditures to public higher education, while other states invest 12.5% on average.

At the campus level this pattern of state disinvestment in its public higher education system has resulted in a backlog of more than $5.5 billion in unfunded capital projects and necessitated that campuses tap already-tight operating budgets and increase student charges to pay for deferred maintenance.

At the state level, this pattern has resulted in Massachusetts falling woefully behind its chief economic competitors in supporting its public higher education system. In fiscal 2006, Connecticut invested more than four times what Massachusetts did on the capital needs of its public colleges and university system, North Carolina approximately seven times, and New York nearly eight times.

With two-thirds of our high school graduates who attend college in Massachusetts going to a public institution — up from only 58% a decade ago — our economic future depends on having public colleges and a university with best-in-class labs, equipment, and technology.

Patrick’s bond bill recognizes these competitive implications by emphasizing investments that contribute to the medium to long term competitiveness of our state economy.

The bill would fund new science centers at four Massachusetts state colleges where existing science facilities are 30 to 50 years old. These buildings lack the labs to conduct some of today’s sophisticated experiments in chemistry and biology and the space to meet current equipment, fabrication, and technology needs in physics.

These shortcomings undermine our ability to attract top faculty and retain students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math in Massachusetts. First-rate facilities will promote teaching and learning in these fields, help fill the talent pipeline needed to support regional industries, and meet the demands of our public schools for the finest science and math teachers.

At the state’s 15 community colleges, the bond bill will fund construction of new allied health buildings on four campuses as well as the complete modernization and rehabilitation of science and general academic buildings on most of the remaining campuses. New allied health facilities will strengthen these colleges’ capacity to respond directly to changing workforce needs by enhancing the training of more nurses, medical technicians, and health care professionals — jobs that are in tremendous demand.

The effects of state disinvestment in our public colleges and university are not as visible to the public as lack of investment in our transportation networks, but they are every bit as critical to our long-term competitiveness. As the Legislature considers the bond bill, the question is not whether we can afford to pay for these investments, but whether we can afford not to.

Robert V. Antonucci is president of Fitchburg State College. Terrence A. Gomes is president of Roxbury Community College. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.

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