Public Higher Education Needs a Boost

It has been said that the world comes to Massachusetts to be educated. The problem is, when they’re done with their educational experience, most of the ’world’ goes home.

Indeed, many of the best and the brightest graduates of the dozens of private colleges in Massachusetts take their collected knowledge and apply it elsewhere.

Many of those who stay and live here were born and raised here, and they are far more likely to be graduates of UMass, Westfield State College, and Springfield Technical Community College than they are Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, or Harvard. And this phenomenon is one of many reasons why state legislators should heed the warnings contained in a recently released report on the state’s higher education system.

That report, compiled by the Senate Task Force on Higher Education, says that a dramatic infusion of state money is needed to stop a slide in quality and make education more affordable at public colleges in the Commonwealth. The report’s authors, including Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), propose that the state increase spending on public higher education by one-third, or as much as $300 million, in the next five to seven years.

"The public higher education system has been treated like a poor stepchild at a time when families are using it more and the state economy is going to rely on it more," said Sen. Steven Panagiotakis, a Lowell Democrat and task force leader as he capsulized the report’s findings. "We will live and die economically with the kids who come out of public higher education, and if the system’s not quality, we won’t be where we need to be."

Leaders of taxpayer groups say the report has merit, but they don’t know how the state can find a way to fund the plan, not when state revenues are likely to increase by only about 5% annually in the next few years and there are many spending priorities, including health care, pensions, and school building repairs.

We believe that the Legislature has to find some way to fund the bill’s

provisions or, at the very least, swing the pendulum back in other direction

— toward more appropriate funding of state colleges and universities.

Why? Because other states are realizing the importance of public education, and their commitments have resulted in the creation of jobs and centers of new technology. We’ve seen this in North Carolina, Texas,

California, and elsewhere. Massachusetts, meanwhile, has been going in the other direction, and the numbers tell the story:

– The state now ranks 49th in the nation in spending on higher education per $1,000 of state income;

– It ranks 47th in the nation in state spending on public higher education per capita;

– It has seen the largest decrease in state funding for public higher education: a 32.6% reduction, adjusted for inflation, between 2001 and 2004, out of the 50 states;

– It is the only state in the nation that is spending less on public higher education than it was 10 years ago; and

– Student charges have consistently been above the national average, and are among the highest in the country because of insufficient funding.

What does all this mean? Here things get subjective, rather than objective, but what it means is that fewer people are receiving a college education in the state because they can no longer afford it. And it also means that the quality of the educational experience is declining — and will continue to decline unless the trend is reversed — because individual schools have fewer resources and have to rely more on adjunct teachers rather than full-time faculty members.

What’s more, it means that the state university’s goal of becoming a world-class research institution will be that much harder to reach.

And what does that mean? That the state will continue to lose its competitive edge to other states and other countries. Locally, it will mean that many initiatives of the Plan to Progress — including those to create a workforce capable of working in emerging technologies, and to diversify the region’s economy in these sciences — will be more difficult to achieve.

It will be difficult for legislators to find the money to fund the budget increases outlined in the task force’s report. The only logical alternatives are tax hikes, which no one has an appetite for, or shifting some budget priorities.

We hope that some solution can be found however, because, as the evidence shows, the public colleges train the Commonwealth’s workforce — and that workforce represents our future.