State Can’t Be Lax on Higher Education

Higher education is to Massachusetts what the citrus industry is to Florida.

It is simultaneously our greatest natural resource and one of our leading industries. Maintaining and strengthening the public and private higher-education institutions and their students is critical to maintaining the state’s economic competitiveness.

In recent years, Massachusetts has fallen dangerously behind competitor states in its funding of grant aid for needy students. From 1989 to 2004, Massachusetts joined, Alabama, North Dakota, and Hawaii as one of only four states to allow a decline in its state appropriations for student financial aid.

In our case, it dropped by 13.5%.

Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where more students are enrolled in independent colleges than in public institutions. About 40% of these students are Massachusetts residents. Moreover, those who come from out of state to attend college here contribute to a brain gain for the Commonwealth. Many out-of-staters choose to remain in Massachusetts after graduation at least for their first jobs.

The public benefits of our private higher-education sector are vast, but undervalued. The independent sector educates nearly 80% of the minority students attending four-year colleges in Massachusetts.

The independent sector also graduates a disproportionate share of students majoring in math, science, and other disciplines critically important to the Massachusetts economy. These graduates are well prepared to move into key industries, such as health care, biotechnology, nonotechnology, and telecommunications — industries the independent higher-education sector has helped spawn through research and development and entrepreneurial activity.

The bottom line: The independent sector simultaneously attracts billions of research dollars to the state, invests billions in payroll, construction, and other purchases, and annually saves billions of dollars in public expenditures. Massachusetts, unlike many competitor states, has had the luxury of not needing to allocate double-digit percentages of its annual state budget to higher education, precisely because of the breadth, depth, and quality of our higher education sector. That is not to say, however, that we are spending adequately on education.

Per-student spending on higher education in Massachusetts has been among the lowest in the nation. Massachusetts invests less than 4% of its budget on higher education. In comparison, North Carolina invests more than 14%. This decline in state funding has forced students to take out more loans or not enroll at all. This can only result in a brain drain and weakening of the Massachusetts economy. Last year, the independent colleges and universities in Massachusetts contributed $275 million from their own institutional resources to fund financial aid for Massachusetts residents. For many, this represents a significant portion of their operating budget.

The Legislature and the Romney administration should appropriate funding of operations, capital, and student financial aid for our higher education sector.

This year’s commitment to our public higher education system is an important step in the right direction. A significant investment in state appropriations for student financial aid for Massachusetts residents attending both our public and private independent colleges and universities is warranted and desperately needed. The governor and the Legislature should move ahead with the Board of Education’s cost-effective proposal released last month to increase the Commonwealth’s investment in higher education, including a $20 million increase in student financial aid for residents seeking to attend the college of their choice in Massachusetts.

Just as Florida invests millions of dollars each year to promote its signature citrus industry, so, too, must we invest in our signature industry — higher education and the students we educate to become productive citizens and lifelong contributors to our economy.

Richard Doherty is president of the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts.