The case for Massachusetts community colleges

Concerted effort needed to bolster two-year campuses, which face serious challenges

AS WEALTH AND INCOME GAPS in Massachusetts widen, the role of its 15 community colleges becomes even more important. For many of the Commonwealth’s 136,000 community college students, attendance and completion are the keys to entering the middle class. But despite the best efforts of dedicated faculty and staff, community colleges face serious challenges to their ongoing viability, challenges that only a concerted, statewide effort can deal with effectively.

I recently completed 10 years as a trustee of Massachusetts Bay Community College, and I chaired the 11-member board for the past six. This service has given me a close look at the operations of community colleges, at the outstanding work done by faculty and staff, and at the challenges that face them, all of which were worsened by the pandemic.

The community college system is Massachusetts was first devised in 1960 and over the years the system has played an increasingly important role in public higher education. Today, roughly half of the state’s public higher education students attend community college.

The advantages of the system are many. First, community colleges are “open enrollment” institutions. That is, they offer admissions to any student with a high school diploma or equivalent. This provides access to a certificate or college degree to those who may not have other higher ed options. Second, community colleges provide remedial programs in math and English for those students who lack, for whatever reason, basic skills in these areas. At MassBay, over half of degree-seeking students require remedial instruction in one or both areas. Finally, community colleges are an inexpensive alternative to four-year colleges. At MassBay, for example, a full-time course load in a degree-granting program costs approximately $7,000 a year. For many families, this affordability removes a formidable barrier to higher education.

Importantly, community colleges also provide opportunities to students who wish to accumulate credits for use elsewhere via transfer or otherwise. This feature has been particularly attractive to students during the pandemic.

Having attended and presided over a number of commencement exercises over my 10 years on MassBay’s board, I can attest to the accomplishments of its degree and certificate recipients and their families. For many, a community college education is an achievement that seemed completely out of reach. For others, the experience is the ticket to success in an adopted country. For all, completion of an academic program beyond high school provides a gateway to a better life.

Unfortunately, there are clouds on the horizon, which, if not dealt with, threaten the viability of these 15 institutions. The first is financial. Through community colleges educate roughly half of the public higher education students in the Commonwealth, they receive only about one-quarter of the state’s higher education appropriation. This is unfair by any measure, especially given the fact that, as a group, community college students are the neediest in the higher education system. More funding devoted to community college is the obvious answer. But increasing the state appropriation is only part of what is required.

A second feature this funding picture involves is the arcane manner in which the cost of community college courses is set. Each course has a tuition element, which is set by the state, and a fee element, which is set by the institution. Because of declines in state appropriations in recent years, community colleges have ben forced to rely heavily on fees to balance their budgets. At MassBay roughly two-thirds of a student’s $7,000 annual outlay goes to fees, a portion of which is then remitted to the state. Not only is this a cumbersome and burdensome process, but it adds unnecessary confusion to the admissions and financial aid processes. It is hardly surprising that a majority of community college students receive some form of financial aid. At MassBay, for example, over half of degree candidates receive federal Pell grants, which are paid directly to institutions on behalf of students at or below certain income levels.

The bottom line is that community colleges need more funding, and they need it in a form that is transparent and efficient to administer.

The second cloud on the community college horizon is demographic – there are simply fewer college-age students these days as the result of lower birth rates. This decline began a decade or so ago and shows no sign or abating. Also, the strong job market with which the Commonwealth has been blessed in recent years, reduces the financial incentive to seek a degree or certificate.

This double whammy has required community colleges to step up their student recruitment and retention efforts, but many institutions cannot survive if demographic and employment trends continue. MassBay has been able to accumulate a significant cash reserve to maintain its financial stability, thanks to prudent management and efficient operations. Other institutions with smaller service areas and student populations have not been so fortunate and may not be viable in the future.

All of this raises an important question for higher education policymakers: Are the community college students of Massachusetts well-served by 15 separate institutions, each with its own governance, academic, and administrative team? Would fewer institutions, consolidation of administration and educational tasks, and a broader consideration of workforce needs make for a better system, especially if accompanied by more rigorous state oversight? One needs to look no further than Connecticut, which began the process of consolidating its 23 community colleges back in 2018 and hopes to complete the process by 2023.

Massachusetts is a world leader in providing the global economy with skilled, educated, and creative employees. Many of these employees come from the state’s public colleges and universities, and not a few of them get their start at community colleges. It is not an overstatement to describe community colleges as the workhorses of the public higher ed system.

Meet the Author
Making community college attendance simple, affordable, and more employment-oriented will go a long way to solve the state’s widening wealth gap. By doing this, Massachusetts will also maintain its status as a national leader in education.

Thomas E. Peisch is a retired trial lawyer and a resident of Wellesley. He was appointed by Gov. Baker to the Massachusetts Bay Community College board of trustees in 2012 and was appointed board chair in 2015. He served until October 31, 2021.