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November 26, 2014

Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland speaking at the release of the Department's "Degrees of Urgency" report. (Masshighered/ Flickr CC).

In late October, the Massachusetts’ Department of Higher Education released its “Degrees of Urgency” Vision Project report. It addresses challenges for state colleges and universities as demographic shifts in the next decade will result in smaller student enrollments. In New England, colleges can anticipate a 9 percent or more population loss.   

The report arrives on the heels of a dramatic shift in Massachusetts funding for higher education.  The new funding formula focuses significantly on completion rates of students who start full time and complete a program within the expected time. The formula seems likely to exasperate existing problems since state institution populations have continued to grow significantly since 2000, despite over 30 percent drop in public funding during that same time.   

Related: Education Report Calls for More Grads, More Funds

For Massachusetts’ fifteen community colleges (out of the twenty-nine state colleges and universities), the new projections and new funding formula seem almost punitive since only about a third of community college students start their education or leave according to one of the state’s definitions of “completion”.  For instance, if a student transfers after the first year to a four-year college, before completing his or her program, that is considered a failure, not a success.  

Like in other states, the community colleges serve the largest population of students (nearly 140,000) when compared to the state universities (just over 72,000) and the UMASS system (just over 71,000) separately. The community colleges do a lion’s share of labor yet have less resources and still must compete with universities who wield significant resources to recruit and support out-of-state students and international students, rely on more substantial endowments (cumulatively, the UMASS system has over $500 million for their endowment), can secure more funding through grants, and deploy a wider-range of advertising campaigns.  The approach has too much in common with the failing downward spiral known as No Child Left Behind in that the poorer completion rates results in less funds, which results in a college needing to do more with even less to try to stabilize or grow its student population.

Related: ‘Performance-Based’ Community College Funding Ties Budget to Outcome

The demographic challenge is real and the continuing decline of public support for public education does not seem to be changing any time soon.  However, the advice offered falls short; a mere encouragement to “do your best.” The report identifies three strategies for avoiding the decline with examples from different institutions implementing programs related to each strategy.  The strategies focus on boosting college completion rates, closing achievement gaps, and attracting more students from underserved populations.  Therein lies the rub; these are projects that state institutions are already pursuing across the state.  To pursue them means in some cases to already be behind and thus find less support or interest in the programs.

Ideally, the state would revisit its definition of success, but that seems highly unlikely.  If state institutions want to avoid the hemorrhaging that the state set up for them, they need to make real changes.  They need to move beyond recommendations from the report.  What is needed is enacting real institutional change that students can actually see and feel.  State institutions need to make themselves as viable and attractive as fully-online colleges, MOOCs, and other educational portals.  This is not a cry to mimic them.  Rather, state institutions need to at least recognize there are things they should be doing and largely are not doing in part because tradition hampers legitimate change.  

Lance Eaton (@leaton01)  is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog. 

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