New higher ed commissioner will face big challenges 

State is backsliding after gains in raising attendance and grad rates 

THE STATE ANNOUNCED four finalists on Tuesday to become higher education commissioner, and whichever candidate gets the nod will take the reins at a moment of hope and also great concern. 

The state has taken a lead role nationally in addressing the issue of equity in higher education, and has made strides in raising graduation rates and other measures of progress. But Massachusetts is facing a decrease in the overall population of college-going residents accompanied by alarming decreases in the rates of college enrollment among the very groups its equity agenda is aiming to help. 

“The good news is there’s a lot of interest in higher education in Massachusetts, and a sense that our higher education sector has had some real momentum,” said Chris Gabrieli, chair of the Board of Higher Education. Until recently, he said, “the question was, could we accelerate our rate of improvement. Now, it feels like the very inequalities we had hoped to narrow are widening considerably.” 

The higher education commissioner and board oversee the state’s 29 public campuses, which consist of 15 community colleges, nine state universities, and five campuses of the University of Massachusetts system. The board is searching for a replacement for Carlos Santiago, who is stepping down after seven years as commissioner. 

Some of the drop in college enrollment here and nationally has been attributed to the disruption of the pandemic. But the troubling trends began before COVID hit. 

Data presented at the Board of Higher Education’s August 3 meeting showed that overall college enrollment by graduating high school seniors in the state dropped by 9 percentage points from 2017 to 2021, going from 69.3 percent to 60.4 percent. But the decline was much steeper for Black and Latino students. Black student enrollment in college immediately after high school fell by almost 11 points, from 63.1 percent to 52.5 percent, while Latino graduates showed the greatest decline, going from 51 percent to 36.2 percent.

The state has made significant progress in expanding its early college program, through which high school students take college classes and earn credits toward a degree. The recently approved 2023 state budget includes $19 million for early college programs, an $8 million increase over the previous year. Studies show early college enrollment, which disproportionately is made up of low-income students, doubles college-degree attainment rates. 

Despite those positive trends, there are very worrisome signs that Massachusetts is facing a shortage of high-skilled workers, a threat to both the state’s knowledge economy and to the economic standing of its residents. 

A MassINC research brief in June estimated that “the state’s working-age, college-educated population will fall by approximately 192,000 residents by 2030.” One significant component in that decline, the report said, was that students of color make up a much larger share of today’s high school student population (40 percent) than its baby boomer population that is now retiring (20 percent), and “students of color are less than half as likely as White students to obtain a college degree in Massachusetts.”

The four candidates for higher education commissioner, who will undergo public interviews on Thursday, are: Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor for equitable student learning, experience, and impact at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office; Mary Churchill, the associate dean of strategic initiatives & community engagement at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development; Lane Glenn, the president of Northern Essex Community College; and Noe Ortega, former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Glenn is a member of the board of MassINC, the nonpartisan public policy think tank that is publisher of CommonWealth.) 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

In 2018, the Board of Higher Education launched a multi-pronged “equity agenda” that includes a number of initiatives to improve outcomes among historically underserved populations, becoming the first state higher ed agency in the country to make this its top policy priority. The recent widening of gaps in college attendance between groups represents a clear challenge for the new commissioner to take on. 

“The question of how much public higher ed in Massachusetts can be part of the solution is paramount,” said Gabrieli.