New higher ed commissioner will face big challenges
THE STATE ANNOUNCED four finalists on Tuesday to become higher education commissioner, and whichever candidate gets the nod will take the reins at a moment of hope and also great concern.
The state has taken a lead role nationally in addressing the issue of equity in higher education, and has made strides in raising graduation rates and other measures of progress. But Massachusetts is facing a decrease in the overall population of college-going residents accompanied by alarming decreases in the rates of college enrollment among the very groups its equity agenda is aiming to help.
“The good news is there’s a lot of interest in higher education in Massachusetts, and a sense that our higher education sector has had some real momentum,” said Chris Gabrieli, chair of the Board of Higher Education. Until recently, he said, “the question was, could we accelerate our rate of improvement. Now, it feels like the very inequalities we had hoped to narrow are widening considerably.”
The higher education commissioner and board oversee the state’s 29 public campuses, which consist of 15 community colleges, nine state universities, and five campuses of the University of Massachusetts system. The board is searching for a replacement for Carlos Santiago, who is stepping down after seven years as commissioner.
Data presented at the Board of Higher Education’s August 3 meeting showed that overall college enrollment by graduating high school seniors in the state dropped by 9 percentage points from 2017 to 2021, going from 69.3 percent to 60.4 percent. But the decline was much steeper for Black and Latino students. Black student enrollment in college immediately after high school fell by almost 11 points, from 63.1 percent to 52.5 percent, while Latino graduates showed the greatest decline, going from 51 percent to 36.2 percent.
The state has made significant progress in expanding its early college program, through which high school students take college classes and earn credits toward a degree. The recently approved 2023 state budget includes $19 million for early college programs, an $8 million increase over the previous year. Studies show early college enrollment, which disproportionately is made up of low-income students, doubles college-degree attainment rates.
Despite those positive trends, there are very worrisome signs that Massachusetts is facing a shortage of high-skilled workers, a threat to both the state’s knowledge economy and to the economic standing of its residents.
A MassINC research brief in June estimated that “the state’s working-age, college-educated population will fall by approximately 192,000 residents by 2030.” One significant component in that decline, the report said, was that students of color make up a much larger share of today’s high school student population (40 percent) than its baby boomer population that is now retiring (20 percent), and “students of color are less than half as likely as White students to obtain a college degree in Massachusetts.”
The four candidates for higher education commissioner, who will undergo public interviews on Thursday, are: Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor for equitable student learning, experience, and impact at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office; Mary Churchill, the associate dean of strategic initiatives & community engagement at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development; Lane Glenn, the president of Northern Essex Community College; and Noe Ortega, former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Glenn is a member of the board of MassINC, the nonpartisan public policy think tank that is publisher of CommonWealth.)
In 2018, the Board of Higher Education launched a multi-pronged “equity agenda” that includes a number of initiatives to improve outcomes among historically underserved populations, becoming the first state higher ed agency in the country to make this its top policy priority. The recent widening of gaps in college attendance between groups represents a clear challenge for the new commissioner to take on.
“The question of how much public higher ed in Massachusetts can be part of the solution is paramount,” said Gabrieli.
Boosting bus frequency: Buses in Lawrence will operate every 30 minutes all day long on weekdays starting September 6 in a bid to better serve customers. The shift in frequency follows a decision in March to eliminate fares for at least two years. Read more.
Full-court press: Gov. Charlie Baker pledges to use his remaining time in office to press for federal funds for East-West rail. Read more.
Fix the laws: Benjamin Forman of MassINC and Ben Wood of Health Resources in Action say outdated state contracting laws are to blame for the lack of minority contracting. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
A major fire at a Mattapoisett boatyard is called accidental, blamed on a spark that ignited gasoline vapors as a gas tank was being replaced. (Associated Press)
Four relatives are found dead in Lynn. One of them, a woman and the presumed killer of the others, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (Daily Item)
Former Telegram & Gazette reporter George Barnes, who grew up in Petersham, pays a visit there and gets nostalgic about the historic Nichewaug Inn, which is being torn down. (Telegram & Gazette) In April, CommonWealth took a deep dive on the ultimately failed effort to preserve the grand 1899 structure.
Dental practices are struggling with severe staffing shortages brought about by COVID even as demand for services is rising. (WBUR)
Researchers say high vaccination levels in Massachusetts helped the state avoid any “excess mortality” – death rates beyond what would be normally expected – during two COVID surges when case counts went up, in 2021 and 2022. (Boston Globe)
Suffolk DA candidate Ricardo Arroyo was twice investigated for allegations of sexual assault in 2005 and 2007, but he claims to know nothing of the cases and denies ever speaking with officials, despite police records saying a detective spoke with him about the 2005 case. (Boston Globe)
Three candidates are vying to be the Democratic nominee for Bristol County sheriff – and face off in November against Republican incumbent Thomas Hodgson, a Trump-supporting lightning rod figure in state politics. (New Bedford Light)
Howie Carr pounces on Maura Healey’s recent comments to CommonWealth – “the semi-official organ of the local woke establishment” – that she regrets the language she used in 2020 about unrest following the police murder of George Floyd. (Boston Herald)
Elections across the country yesterday offered generally good news for Democrats, including a win in an evenly divided upstate New York congressional district where their candidate made abortion a centerpiece of his campaign. (Washington Post)
The Fall River School Department is still scrambling to locate space to house its expanded pre-kindergarten programming, which is slated to begin after Labor Day. (Herald News)
Boston is moving to beef up its school bus transportation services during the MBTA’s Orange Line shutdown. (Boston Globe)
A driver shortage has the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority struggling to keep its routes running. (Berkshire Eagle)
The Boston Police Department is the only department in Massachusetts that has not sent in its paperwork for officers to be certified by the state. (WBUR)
Inmates at a West Virginia prison learned ahead of time that James “Whitey” Bulger was coming to the facility, according to transcripts of inmate phone calls. The transcripts suggest prison officials let it be known that Bulger was coming. He was beaten to death in his cell soon after his arrival. (Associated Press)
MEDIAA letter to readers from the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer explains why the paper chose not to cover a rally for US Senate candidate J.D. Vance that featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The letter from Chris Quinn said organizers of the rally imposed “ridiculous restrictions” on media, including a requirement that reporters could only interview attendees approved by the organizers of the event.