The Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities are “a neglected resource” with an economic role that is “far greater and far more important than has been true historically,” Richard Freeland, Commissioner of Higher Education, told the AIM Public Affairs Council last week.
Freeland pointed out that most Massachusetts high school graduates who go on to college enter the public system, as do large majorities of older students, minority students and veterans.
Without discounting independent institutions (he is a graduate of Amherst and former president of Northeastern) Freeland noted that the students at private schools are increasingly recruited nationally and internationally, and are less likely to pursue careers here after graduation. In a state where 70 percent of jobs will soon require some college education, the primary responsibility for maintaining the quality of the workforce falls to the public campuses.
This realization, he said, is the basis of the Board of Higher Education’s ongoing Vision Project:
“The ‘vision’ in the Vision Project is that Massachusetts needs, and should aspire to have, the best-educated workforce in the nation.” But while the project’s newly-released initial report, “Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Public Higher Education,” identified various ways in which the system is providing excellent service to the Commonwealth – for example, the rise in research activity at the University of Massachusetts – the bottom line is that “we’re nowhere near leadership”; there are “too many areas where Massachusetts is just pretty average.”
Further improvement is not all about money, he argued, but money is important. The Massachusetts public system ranks about 30th nationally in per-student funding, and state support has been eroding.
“Is excellence in public higher education important? Is this an area in which we should be national leaders – as in k-12 education?” he asked.
“This issue needs to be higher on the state’s radar screen.” It should be an issue, particularly, for employers, he said, because they understand the stakes, and can influence the Legislature.
Asked if public higher education could be more efficient, Freeland replied that while individual campuses are generally lean, the system consists of “a relatively large number of relatively small institutions,” with “a culture built around autonomy and decentralization.” The greatest opportunity for savings, he said, is on the administrative side, although some programmatic sharing has been undertaken on the instructional side.