Advancing degrees

compared with k-12 education, which has been under the microscope since (at least) the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, higher education has had it easy. Here in Massachusetts, the grand bargain-of investment, expectations, and accountability-embodied in the 1993 Education Reform Act has placed schools under scrutiny to do better for students and the taxpayers. By and large, the results are positive. As we prepare for a new governor and new leadership at the state Board of Higher Education, the time is right to focus similarly on public higher education.

Today, the American Dream begins with a college degree. A college graduate has a much better chance to earn enough to buy a house and raise a family than someone without a college degree. College graduates are also key ingredients in Massachusetts’s knowledge-based economy. But just as higher education has become a necessity, obtaining a college education is becoming more difficult to afford. According to the MassINC report Paying for College, families of college students are spending a higher share of their incomes to cover the costs than they did a decade ago, and the rate of growth is outstripping the rest of the nation. This is even true at our state university and four-year public colleges, where cutbacks in state appropriations contributed to tuition and fee increases of nearly 70 percent from 2001 to 2005.

The level of state support for public higher education in Massachusetts has long been lamented, but the extent of that neglect is subject to dispute. Critics often point to the Bay State’s ranking of 47th in the percentage of personal income it devotes to public higher education, but that statistic has always been misleading. Nearly half of all new Massachusetts freshmen seek college education from private institutions rather than public, so the state college and university system here is much smaller than in many states. A fairer yardstick of investment needs to account for the number of students—not the total income of all people who live in the Commonwealth. By this score—spending per student—we rank seventh highest in the nation.

Funding is important, both the amount and its predictability. But the debate should not be about funding alone. There’s a movement afoot to hold colleges to higher standards. At the national level, the report of the Spellings Commission on higher education stated that American colleges and universities are “increasingly risk averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.” The report calls for the establishment of a “robust culture of accountability and transparency”—including, most importantly, new ways of measuring and reporting what college students learn. Here, Massachusetts can lead the way.

Linking new funds to performance will boost public higher education.

Our institutions of public higher education need to move beyond finger pointing—at the Legislature, the Board of Higher Education, the business community, and each other—and embrace the opportunity created by several factors. First, if the Legislature approves the Senate’s plan to invest some $400 million over seven years in exchange for holding the line on student fee increases, that should substantially address the campuses’ concerns about funding. Second, the business and civic communities are focused on talent retention and workforce development—the Bay State’s prime calling card for attracting new jobs. Linking increased funding to stronger outcomes, as well as more administrative efficiencies, will only increase public support. Third, there is growing recognition that the yardstick of graduation rates is fundamentally important but also in need of refinement, such as by making full use of the state’s new PreK-16 database to track student outcomes even as they move from campus to campus. The door is wide open to develop a better way to measure performance. Fourth, UMass and other institutions are on a roll, bringing in new competitive grants, building out their technology transfer capability, and beginning to work more closely with employers to meet their needs for new skilled workers.

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Now is the time for these institutions to step forward and say: “Here is our vision, here is what we need, and here is how we will show you that additional investment leads to higher performance.” It’s a bargain that students and taxpayers alike would embrace.