Report: State needs to boost degree production

Grad shortage threatens state’s knowledge-based economy

IT’S THE LONG-RUNNING saga of the Massachusetts economy that’s been told repeatedly as a cautionary tale: Massachusetts lives by its wits — and lives well by them — but only focused attention and action will ensure that the state maintains that standing.

The latest chapter came on Wednesday from the state Department of Higher Education, which warned in a report that Massachusetts is poised to start seeing a decline in the number of Massachusetts residents earning college degrees. If not reversed, the trend will exacerbate an already existing shortage of qualified workers for high-skills jobs and will put a damper on growth in the state’s knowledge-based economy.

The report, titled “The Degree Gap,” says that a combination of demographic trends are conspiring to threaten the state’s economy. While about 660,000 Massachusetts workers will retire over the next decade, the state is facing a 7 percent decline in the number of high school students – the pipeline feeding the state’s higher education institutions and, ultimately, its skilled workforce. A further wrinkle in the worrisome demographic picture is that Latinos, whose share of the state population is growing, experience a pronounced gap in degree completion rates compared with whites once they enroll in public higher ed institutions.

Among Massachusetts adults aged 25 to 54, 51.5 percent have a college degree, the highest rate in the country. But that figure, which has been rising for years, will begin to reverse by the end of the decade unless the state is able to ratchet up the output of high education degree-holders.

Last year, the state reported that by 2025 Massachusetts will face a shortage of 55,000 to 65,000 college degree holders from the public higher education system to meet employer needs across the Commonwealth. The new report says 80 percent of that gap will be in four-year degrees.

While that might suggest that most of the effort to boost completion rates should be focused on four-year universities, two-year community colleges can also play an important role by having students successfully complete their programs and transfer to four-year institutions to obtain a baccalaureate degree.

The state boasts one of the highest rates of college matriculation by high school graduates — 78 percent — but it has struggled to boost completion rates and to narrow the gap separating black and Latino students from their white counterparts.

While just over half of all undergraduates in the state now attend a public college or university, the public system educates a far larger share of black and Latino students who enter higher ed — 79 percent of Latino undergrads in the state and 72 percent of black college students attend a public campus. Among these two groups, fewer than one-third of those enrolling at public campuses obtain a degree after six years, according to the report.

The black-white and Latino-white gap in completion rates ranges between 9 and 13 percentage points for two-year community colleges, four-year state universities, and the UMass system’s four campuses.

“We have to ensure they not only continue to enter in increasing numbers, but we have to ensure their success,” said Carlos Santiago, the state commissioner of higher education, about the state’s growing Latino population.

Santiago said his office plans to focus on three related priorities: expanded higher ed access, including initiatives that address the cost barriers facing lower-income students, narrowing the achievement gap among black and Latino students, and increasing completion rates so that the state turns out more degree-holders.

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.

One new program unveiled in April, Commonwealth Commitment, will help students save as much as $5,000 off the cost of a four-year degree if they maintain good grades and transfer to a four-year school after completing a two-year degree at a state community college. Meanwhile, the state piloted two programs this year dubbed “100 males to College” — in Framingham and Springfield — that provide mentoring for black and Latino male high school students to help them get and stay on track to college.

Santiago said the state also needs to grapple with the fact that low completion rates among those entering public higher ed institutions reflect inadequate educational preparation reaching as far back as early childhood. “Not only does it need to integrate with K-12, I think ultimately it needs to be integrated with pre-K,” said Santiago. “These are gaps that don’t start when they come to our colleges.”