State needs to step up for higher ed

More investment key to future economic competitiveness

THE COMMONWEALTH’S ECONOMY has been transformed from one heavily defined by manufacturing a few decades ago to one that is now knowledge-based. Jobs – even the less-skilled positions – require a higher level of educational attainment, yet the pipeline of workers to fill the jobs has slowed, just as baby boomers get set to retire and the number of high school graduates headed for college declines.

Massachusetts’ state universities and community colleges are about to be called on to step up their education and training of young men and women, many from our Gateway Cities, so that the state has the workforce it needs to attract new industries – as it has done with biotech – and new employers, as it hopes to do with Amazon.

The Commonwealth’s public universities and community colleges provide a high quality education at an affordable cost, collectively producing more than 40,000 graduates per year. Altogether, our five UMass campuses, nine state universities, and 15 community colleges educate 70 percent of the state’s high school graduates who remain in Massachusetts to attend college.

It’s worth noting that 60 percent of those graduating from a public institution will stay in Massachusetts to work, while only 38 percent of those educated in private colleges and universities will do so.

Westfield State University, Holyoke Community College, and its sister public institutions educate the underserved populations in the state. Data indicate that public institutions educate 72 percent of African-American and 79 percent of Latino/a undergraduates. These are the very citizens who will help fill the talent gap soon to be felt as aging baby boomers leave the workforce.

Education is the key to improving the lives of our citizens and our economy. The benefits of a college degree are substantial—both in terms of the income differential over a lifetime as well as the return those individuals with degrees generate for the broader community, through increased tax revenues and public sector savings. Research shows that states with more college-educated workers have stronger, higher-wage economies.

Our public colleges and universities also play a significant role in the economy of the Commonwealth as employers, buyers of goods and services and supplier of trained workers to regional industries. A recent economic analysis of Holyoke Community College placed the college’s economic impact on the Pioneer Valley at $214.6 million annually. Consider the aggregate impact of all 29 institutions on the economic health and vitality of the Commonwealth.

To meet our workforce needs, we must look not only to our state’s high school graduates, but also to the 1 million-plus Massachusetts residents who have some higher education but no college degree. Doing so will not only provide a major workforce boost but will lift up under-represented areas of our state where unemployment has stubbornly remained higher than it should.

The Commonwealth’s universities and community colleges want to do more.

However, we must be fairly funded for that work. While the need has arguably never been greater, the state’s share of funding for higher education over nearly two decades has been falling, currently hovering around 20 percent. To be clear, we are not saying the rate of growth is declining.  Actual funding is decreasing. It has fallen by 14 percent since fiscal year 2001.

If you adjust this figure for inflation, Massachusetts higher education funding has fallen by 31 percent per student in this time period. Massachusetts spends $227 per capita on higher education, which puts us 34th in the nation; not even the middle of the pack. We are behind all of the states that have the most highly regarded public universities, such as California, New York, and North Carolina.

Our need-based aid also lags behind many other states. New Jersey provides almost five times the aid to needy students in comparison to Massachusetts.

Ultimately, shrinking resources have driven up the cost of tuition and fees and shifted the financial burden onto working families and students, who assume even more debt.

The state has made a capital investment in higher education, which can easily be seen by walking around these campuses. It helps in recruiting and serving our students. Yet, in one of the sharpest state government ironies, the Commonwealth leaves it to the individual institutions to maintain these buildings, forcing them to redirect precious operating budget funds away from students.

Similarly, the Commonwealth currently funds only the first year of three-year collective bargaining wage increases. Second and third-year increases come out of the institution’s budget, and, even if funding is allocated via a supplemental budget, it does not get incorporated into the base, thereby eroding the base each year.

We urge: full funding of collective bargaining agreements; the passage of S. 2279, which allocates funds for capital facility repairs and improvements for our community colleges and state universities; and funding of the endowment match program (H. 641/S. 690) that will help raise money for scholarships and encourage private donations to colleges and universities by matching those donations.

Massachusetts needs its state higher educational institutions if it is to remain competitive in the new economy and if it hopes to raise the fortunes of those left behind all across our Commonwealth.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Christina Royal

President, Holyoke Community College
This is no time to retreat on our financial commitment to these institutions.

Ramon S. Torrecilha is the president of Westfield State University and Christina Royal is the president of Holyoke Community College.