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Future investment: Improving the state’s higher public education will produce greater economic competitiveness

Richard Freeland and Charles Desmond | 6/8/2010, 11:50 a.m.

Future investment: Improving the state’s higher public education will produce greater economic competitiveness

When Keisha Myers of Bunker Hill Community College and Maher Senatus of Roxbury Community College accepted diplomas last month from their respective institutions, they both silently recalled some initial misgivings that gave way to great pride in their schools.  

“I wasn’t sure what to think (about Bunker Hill),” says Myers, a high school honors students who worked full-time to put herself through BHCC. “But I was very challenged and now I’m so proud to say that I went there.”

Keisha was recently inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. A history and government major, she will soon head to India to study on scholarship.

Meanwhile, RCC’s Maher Senatus is weighing acceptances from Northeastern and UMass Boston and dreaming of some day becoming a district attorney. He worked two jobs to get through school and recalls faculty members “who were there for me when I needed them.

“I took classes at Harvard and they have fancy food and bigger rooms, but the teachers are the same,” he maintains. “I did not plan to stay at Roxbury Community College, but I fell in love with my school.”

As commissioner and as chairman of the Board of Higher Education, it is a joy for us to hear such stories of student achievement. We know that they are deeply rooted in our state’s history.

Governor Deval Patrick reminded us in his 2007 inaugural address that “Massachusetts invented America.” Massachusetts has been an innovator in the field of education for four centuries. Horace Mann, the Massachusetts native dubbed the “Father of American Education,” would not have been surprised to see the state’s first place ranking on the “Nation’s Report Card” (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP).

And yet, our state’s proud legacy of K-12 educational leadership has never been extended to the 29 public institutions that educate more than half of our high school graduates. State funding for public higher education has traditionally been no better than average, and we have often been a national leader in cutting support for public campuses. Over the last five years we have had the dubious distinction of ranking first among the 50 states in this respect.

In his budget proposal to the legislature, Gov. Patrick recognized these funding inadequacies and called for increased support for public higher education. The governor has also supported funding for student scholarships, better student loan access, improved student transfer policies and a $2 billion bond bill for campus capital projects. We applaud his leadership on these worthy investments and hope this pattern augers a new trend.

What our citizens and leaders need to understand is that Massachusetts can no longer depend on the strength of our private colleges and universities to remain competitive. Our knowledge based economy requires the expansion of a highly skilled work force. The graduates of our public campuses are far more likely than their private college counterparts to build their careers in Massachusetts. The road to our future prosperity leads through public higher education.

Our public campus leaders know that if we are going to win improved financial support we must be accountable to the public for the quality of our work.

This is why the Board of Higher Education has just approved The Vision Project, a new initiative that will measure and publicly report our campus achievements in comparison with peer institutions in other states. We will document the quality of our work while also acknowledging areas where improvements are needed.

Our public community colleges, state colleges and the University of Massachusetts are united behind the goal of producing the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation and being a leader in research that drives economic development.

 Massachusetts’ future ability to compete for jobs and economic investment depends upon students like Myers and Senatus. They have held themselves to the highest standard. All of us in public higher education must do the same. 

Richard Freeland is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Charles Desmond is chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.