Higher education can boost state economy but as aid drops, cost barrier rises

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 12/15/2016, 6 a.m.

Formal higher education frequently opens the door to better wages — especially in Boston where employers are disproportionately likely to seek applicants with bachelors’ degree. But students attending public colleges and universities are now doing so at the cost of greater and greater debt, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

State scholarship support for low-income students to attend public colleges and universities has declined, as has state support for those schools’ operations in general, MassBudget says. Meanwhile, demand for public college and universities has risen during the same period. As such, students are increasingly forced to take out hefty loans.

Should state government reverse course and invest more heavily in public higher education, the benefit would likely be seen in the state economy. A study cited by MassBudget indicates that a greater share of students who graduate from the state’s public institutions stay and become part of the workforce than students who earn their degrees from private in-state institutions.

MassBudget President Noah Berger said increasing the education of a state’s workforce can uplift its economy.

“We see across country that having a well-educated workforce is critically important to having a strong high-wage economy,” Berger told the Banner in a phone interview. “The challenge for the state is to ensure it is both providing high quality pre-K education to 12 to prepare people for college and making sure college is affordable so people who work hard and get admitted can go and get an education that will be helpful for the rest of their lives.”

A state resident attending University of Massachusetts Boston fulltime for 2016-2017 paid tuition and mandatory fees totaling about $13,425, according to the university’s website. UMass Amherst estimates on its website that a fulltime in-state undergraduate student pays about $14,971 in tuition and fees along with an additional $11,897 for room and board, assuming a shared room and basic meal plan. For next year, the UMass Amherst estimates rise to $15,345 and $12,254.

Boston’s job scene

Boston has a greater share of jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees than the national average, according to a report released earlier this year from the city of Boston’s Office of Workforce Development and the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Authors predicted that by 2022, 41 percent of Boston jobs will require a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27 percent of jobs nationally.

Local employers seem also to prefer college-educated applicants, even in cases where the job may not require it, according to the city’s report. For example, report authors state that while one only needs to hold an associate’s degree to become certified as a registered nurse in the state, 80 percent of RNs employed in Boston hold bachelor’s degrees.

“A worker with only an associate’s degree may have difficulty finding employment in the field despite possessing the minimum necessary credential,” the BPDA-Office of Workforce Development report states.

Retaining an educated workforce

Facilitating attendance at public higher education institutions could capitalize on growing interest, and in turn, result in more local workers with degrees.