Schooled in Capital Concern

There are growing concerns that Massachusetts is losing its competitive edge to other states and countries.

More of our students, and future workforce, are looking to Massachusetts public colleges and universities to build their futures. In 2002, 67% of Massachusetts natives who entered college in state went to a public college or university — up from 59% in 1996.

Our private higher education institutions are also a tremendous asset, in that they recruit many students from out of state. We must work with those institutions in developing strategies for keeping talented out-of-state students here.

But our public colleges and universities are already playing a vital role in retaining educated workers, and in a state with anemic population growth, more than 85% of the 800,000 UMass alumni and our state and community colleges are living, working, raising families, and paying taxes in the Commonwealth.

Our public colleges and universities also are highly responsive to local and statewide needs, interests, and industries:

  • The 15 community colleges have provided direct training this year for more than 500 Bay State companies, from Analog Devices to Yankee Candle Co.;
  • The nine state colleges have adopted innovative programs for meeting the growing need for K-12 math and science teachers; and
  • UMass has become a national leader in technology transfer, helping to fuel the life sciences, nanotechnology, marine sciences, and information technology industries statewide.

After several years of cuts to operating budgets and foregone capital investment, the state has taken some initial steps toward addressing funding gaps in public higher education. But a bolder leap is necessary to ensure that we retain our competitive edge.

We need to seriously address the critical capital needs of our public colleges and universities, which have been conservatively estimated at $2.9 billion for the 29 public campuses. We must make sure that our buildings are safe, that our students are learning in the most modern laboratories and classrooms, and that our researchers have state-of-the art equipment and technology.

By any standard, Massachusetts’ capital investment has been woefully inadequate. In 2004, Massachusetts invested only $43 million, far less than any of the states against which we compete for investment and jobs, including Connecticut, at $175 million; New York, $269 million; and North Carolina, $617 million.

The $286 million public higher education capital bond bill that is currently being considered barely makes a dent in the need, although many of the proposed projects would make a direct contribution to the economic competitiveness of our state, including an allied health building at North Shore Community College to train muchneeded nurses, a life sciences R&D facility at UMass Medical to bolster the biotechnology sector, or a design center at MassArt to help keep Massachusetts among the nation’s leading centers of design.

Further, the Legislature should adopt a series of reforms championed by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which will provide public colleges and university with greater management flexibility to employ these funds more effectively and efficiently.

To remain competitive economically, our Commonwealth must get many things right: the cost of doing business, public school quality, health care policy and energy supply, among others. Strategic state investments in our public higher education system are a key part of ensuring our future prosperity.

Richard Lord is the president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts;www.aimnet.org. William H. Guenther is the president of the Mass. Insight Corporation;www.massinsight.com.