Is it higher ed’s turn

Bearing the title Investing in Our Future, the report of the Senate Task Force on Public Higher Education, chaired by Sen. Steven Panagiotakos of Lowell and Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, makes the businessman’s case for beefing up the state’s public colleges and university, or at least the state’s financial support of them, to the tune of $400 million over the next five to seven years.

Calling the Bay State’s “capacity for innovation” its only reliable economic asset, the report warns that we are letting our lead slip away. Then comes the call to arms: “To become a stronger knowledge-based economy, Massachusetts must take bold steps to increase the skills and build the credentials of its workforce” by means of “the single most important strategy for securing our competitive advantage: strengthening public higher education.”

It’s a compelling argument and, in these quarters, gratifying to hear. MassINC’s research and policy papers have been beating the drum for alignment of post-high school education (not only for young people but for adults already in the workforce) with the Bay State’s economic development needs (see New Skills for a New Economy and Getting the Job Done) for years now. A state that has slow labor-force growth, nearly all of it coming from foreign immigration, cannot afford to treat its principal vehicle for workforce upgrades—public higher education —as cavalierly as it has always done.

But attending the March 28 press conference where the report was released, I was struck by a couple of other arguments for public higher education “investment”—in policy as well as funding—that put the Senate’s bold plan in perspective.

Sen. Robert O’Leary, the Barnstable Democrat who is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s new higher education committee, made an argument in three parts. He pointed out that, from a jobs perspective, “higher education is no longer a discretionary choice.” To succeed in our knowledge-based economy, he noted, job seekers “need to move beyond high school.” His second point: “Private higher education is moving beyond the reach of most of us” in price, a reality driven home by the number of eminent local institutions whose annual charges, including tuition and room and board, now top $40,000. His third: “We have underinvested [in public higher education] for a century.”

On this last point, hold on a minute. It’s true that Massachusetts gets its public colleges and universities on the cheap, and treats them badly to boot, but not because we never give them enough money. The statistics most often cited to put us to shame are repeated in the Senate report: Massachusetts is 49th in the country in state spending on public higher ed per $1,000 of personal income, and 47th among the 50 states per capita. But that’s largely because our public colleges and universities educate a far smaller portion of our population than those of, say, Michigan and California. In 2001, when the state’s rankings on these per capita and share-of-income indicators were no better, Massachusetts was a respectable 11th nationwide in spending per student in public higher education (State of the States, CW, Summer ’03).

That, of course, was before the budget cuts of the recent fiscal crisis, which made the Bay State fall to the middle of the pack nationally in per-student spending by 2005. This sharp drop is, in some ways, more the point: We in Massachusetts have been unreliable patrons of public higher education, building up budgets in the fat years then slashing support in the lean.

Whether we can continue to get away with funding higher education so capriciously is called into question by O’Leary’s first two points, which are undeniable. In the current era, post-secondary education is a necessity, for individuals and for the state’s economic future. And the historically preferred vehicle for higher education in these parts—private colleges and universities—is increasingly priced out of reach for a growing segment of the population. For neither its economy nor its people can the Bay State afford to keep feeding public higher education table scraps, even if occasionally plentiful.

here was another intriguing thought that emerged at the press conference. It came from Catherine Latham, whose claim to the microphone was as alumna and parent, but who also spoke as the public school administrator Salem State College and the University of Massachusetts trained her to be.

“I have seen positive and sustained improvement in K-12 education,” as a result of the 1990s push for school reform, said Latham. “It’s higher ed’s turn.”

Is it higher ed’s turn? The parallels between the Education Reform Act of 1993 and what the Senate task force proposes are striking, but incomplete. The education reform process of the ’90s was marked by two features: a definition of adequate funding (foundation budget), which the state committed to providing in an equitable fashion, and a structure of standards and accountability, which would hold the recipients of that funding responsible for improved performance. Money for accountability—that was the deal, and, for all of the twists and turns of the past dozen years, it has largely paid off.

In terms of funding for higher education, the Senate task force sets its target based on a Board of Higher Education funding formula, which determines the cost of providing widely varying educational programs at each institution. According to the Senate calculation, the gap between adequate funding and current appropriations is $400 million. That would mean a 44 percent increase over current funding, phased in over five to seven years, but only $200 million, or 17 percent, above the fiscal 2001 high-water mark, adjusted for inflation. In other words, half of the proposed increase would restore the cuts of the past four years. The other half would bring higher-ed funding to new heights, but based on a reasoned calculation of what high-quality post-secondary education, in all its forms, ought to cost, not a wish list.

If the higher-ed funding formula bears some similarity to the K-12 foundation budget in its rough approximation of educational adequacy, it could serve some of the equity function as well. The Romney administration has, in the past, proposed distributing funds among the campuses on the same formula basis, allocating money according to enrollment and other costs. But the Legislature has insisted on making direct appropriations campus-by-campus, resulting in discrepancies that reflect the political clout of each campus’s legislative champions. The Senate panel, following the recommendation of campus leaders, would move toward a more rational (and less political) distribution of resources by dispensing additional funds on a “parity and equity” basis, with each institution getting a share of the expansion money, but those with the greatest gaps getting more.

The parallel with the standards-and-accountability part of K-12 education reform, however, is much weaker. For the most part, the senators rely on “performance measurement” already taking place at the Board of Higher Education and the University of Massachusetts. Mandated by statute in 1997, the Board of Higher Education’s exercise in data collection has been a source of bitter struggle between the board and state- and community-college presidents for years now, but is starting to bear fruit.

The campus-by-campus accounts included in the 2004 Performance Measurement Report, which was released in February, can be revealing. Take the long-troubled Roxbury Community College, where the one-year retention rate for first-time full-time students fell from 50 percent to 42 percent in the most recent year (students entering in 2002), far below the 56 percent of its 1999 cohort, the last time RCC matched the community college-wide average.

But overall, there is a Lake Wobegon air to the performance measurement report. The executive summary stresses the targets met or exceeded by state and community colleges last year and makes flattering comparisons with national averages. Such accomplishments are certainly to the institutions’ credit, especially under recent fiscal circumstances. But if all of our campuses are above average, could it be that average is not good enough?

Take the first-year retention rate. The Board of Higher Education states that the overall return rates of 75 percent at state colleges and 57 percent at community colleges are “the highest retention rates achieved” to date, and that they “exceed the national averages.” But is one quarter of state college freshmen failing to return after their first year, let alone 43 percent of community-college first-timers, anything to crow about?

Or take graduation rates. At the state colleges, 45.5 percent of students who entered in 1997 had received degrees within six years, a rate the board tells us was 2 percentage points higher than the year before and “comparable to the national average for similar institutions.” How could any institution of higher education be proud that more than half its entering freshmen had failed to earn a degree six years later? And if a graduation rate of less than 50 percent is average, why aren’t we vying to match—if not overtake —the best, like Virginia (59 percent), New Jersey (56 percent), and Pennsylvania (52 percent)?

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Finally, what are the consequences for not meeting campus or system-wide goals? It has taken a long time, but the chickens are finally coming home to roost for schools and school districts that have proved to be “underperforming.” Where are the sanctions for higher-ed failure?

Surely, in exchange for a multi-year funding commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars, we should demand meaningful results. After all, as the senators say, our economy, and our people’s prosperity, are at stake.

Robert David Sullivan and Eric Wagner provided research assistance.