Don’t fixate on the state’s elite private schools

Focus on the state schools that educate most Mass. students

LOCAL COVERAGE of the latest US News and World Report ranking of US colleges has focused on the fact that 7 Massachusetts schools made the top 50. People have questioned these rankings for years. From a local perspective, they highlight an important question: why do these elite private colleges dominate discussions of higher education here when they educate so few Massachusetts students?

MIT is ranked #2 on the US News list, but of its 4,638 undergraduate students, only 295 are from Massachusetts.

At Harvard (ranked #3 on the US News list), only 16 percent of admitted students come from New England.

Tufts (ranked #32) and Boston College (ranked #36) only do a little better. At Tufts, only 329 of 1,697 students in this year’s freshman class are from Massachusetts. At Boston College, only 29 percent are from New England.

It’s clear that while these elite universities are an important part of Massachusetts’ role as a national and global higher education hub, they play an increasingly small part in the education of Massachusetts’ own high school graduates.

When higher education is on the agenda, Massachusetts leaders often default to thinking about our nation-leading private colleges. Leaders of prestigious private colleges encourage this way of thinking; they’ve often opposed strengthening or expanding Massachusetts’ public higher education system, despite the fact that they don’t educate the same students that our public universities serve.

As a new governor and other elected officials look at how to deliver economic growth and prosperity to Massachusetts, they should look to our often-overlooked public colleges and universities.

Of the state’s nearly 50,000 high school graduates who went on to higher education in the 2018-2019 academic year, 62 percent went to one of our public institutions (22 percent to a Massachusetts community college, and 40 percent to a state university or UMass). Only 37 percent went to a private college.

And public college graduates are also much more likely to stay here and contribute to the Massachusetts economy. According to a longitudinal study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 60 percent of graduates of Massachusetts public colleges were working in Massachusetts four years later, while only 38 percent of private college graduates remained in state.

Massachusetts faces many economic challenges that our public colleges are well-equipped to tackle. An aging workforce means many industries face urgent needs for educated and trained workers, as employees with decades of experience retire. Our flourishing biotechnology, software, and advanced manufacturing industries rely on a steady stream of college graduates to fuel their growth.

The numbers are clear: public colleges are doing the real work of educating Massachusetts students who will stay here after graduation to live, work, and raise families. They need to be the top priority for investment and support from leaders on Beacon Hill.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Research has shown that over the past two decades, the state has systematically disinvested from our public higher education system and the students it serves. State aid for these institutions has dropped by 20 percent per student, while the state’s primary need-based grant for students, the MASSGrant, now covers just 10 percent of tuition and fees at these schools. It used to cover 80 percent.

As a result, attaining a degree from a public college or university in Massachusetts is no longer a realistic option for many Massachusetts households.

Funding our public colleges, and increasing scholarship aid to their students, needs to be a top priority in the next legislative session. But funding changes also need to be accompanied by a mental shift. When picturing a Massachusetts college student, our leaders shouldn’t just imagine a student moving into a leafy private school dorm, or walking down Mass Ave wearing a Harvard or MIT sweater.

They should imagine the UMass Amherst student who goes home on weekends to do laundry, or the Bridgewater State student who commutes to campus on a bus from Brockton, or the Bunker Hill Community College student who’s balancing their classes with a full-time job, child care, and other responsibilities.

When those students and their schools receive as much focus and attention as the elite colleges on the US News list, we’ll be on our way to delivering real solutions for Massachusetts families and our state’s economy.

Bob Hildreth is the founder of the Hildreth Institute, a non-profit research and policy center dedicated to restoring the promise of higher education as an engine of upward mobility for all.