In a major shake-up, lawmakers are tightening state control over community colleges, tying budgets to academic performance and giving education officials greater say over choosing and evaluating college presidents.
The wide-ranging policy changes, a chief goal of the Patrick administration and the business community, bring greater oversight to the 15-college system, long criticized for low graduation rates and a lack of uniform standards. The legislation will also extend to the college level the accountability movement that has reshaped K-12 education.
“This is a real breakthrough,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which lobbied for the changes. “In exchange for these changes, there’s every likelihood of more support.”
The two-year colleges, which educate nearly half of all students who attend public colleges in Massachusetts, are seen as critical training grounds for many professions and a key path for many students from low-income backgrounds.
Leaders of community colleges had resisted the effort, saying that they needed more funding far more than additional oversight and that low graduation rates provide a misleading picture of their success.
But supporters said the initiative, approved by the Legislature late last week, marked a clear break with the past by holding up the independently run schools to sharper scrutiny. Until now, the schools have enjoyed wide autonomy, with little state oversight on curriculums, fees, and leadership.
The plan comes with added financial support. The state will increase spending on the two-year schools by $11 million, including $5 million for a grant program focused on raising graduation rates and consolidating administrative tasks across campuses. Another $2.3 million will help schools develop job-training programs to meet changing workforce needs.
Holding the schools accountable for student performance, supporters say, should help spur change.
“We want to make sure that when a student enters the system they make it through to graduation,” said Representative Tom Sannicandro, who chairs the Legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “We need to be doing better.”
Governor Deval Patrick, who proposed an overhaul to the community college system early this year, is expected to sign the measure without substantive changes. Patrick had pushed to give state education officials greater say in setting student fees, but lawmakers rejected the idea.
The debate over community colleges intensified in recent weeks as the president of Roxbury Community College resigned amid allegations of underreported campus crime and financial missteps. For many, the controversy showed the need for greater state involvement.
As part of the new regulations, education officials will consider how schools perform on a range of measures in yearly budget decisions, from narrowing achievement gaps to placing students in jobs.
“You can really reward success,” said Richard M. Freeland, the state’s higher education commissioner. “This is an idea that has gained a lot of traction around the country.”
In coming months, state education officials, in consultation with college presidents, will develop a formula to judge performance and determine budgets. In recent years, the state used the same funding system for all the colleges, regardless of enrollment.
“That has led to some pretty serious misalignments in the budget, because the campuses are growing at very different rates,” Freeland said.
Daniel Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, said he was keeping an open mind about the changes, noting that many details have not been finalized.
“How it will all look, that remains to be seen,” he said.
Yet Asquino said he is unsure about what exactly the legislation is designed to address. “It became more about who’s going to win the battle, rather than sitting down to define the problem,” he said.
Grogan said the support of business leaders was critical to the bill’s quick passage, just five months after Patrick highlighted the issue in his State of the Commonwealth address. Some industry leaders say they have struggled to fill jobs in some fast-growing technical fields.
“The colleges have had near total autonomy,” Grogan said. “A lot of people were pessimistic a change like this could be made.”
Now, the governor will appoint the chairman of each school’s board of trustees, and the state Board of Higher Education will appoint a member to help local trustees identify presidential candidates. The boards of each school still select the president. State education officials will also develop guidelines for evaluating and removing college presidents and for approving salary increases.
Joseph LeBlanc — president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, a statewide union — said the state was wrong to demand better results without providing more resources. “There’s going to be more of a push for us to perform, but unless there’s a corresponding push for more funding, I don’t think it’s right,” he said.
He also voiced reservations about the goal of the changes, saying community colleges should be about more than job training and placement.
“They paranoid side of me feels we’re about to be turned into trade schools, where it’s all about jobs,” he said. “We serve the have-nots, and these students deserve their chance at a four-year degree.”
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.