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Many in Massachusetts are unprepared for college, report finds

A new, wide-ranging report on the status of Massachusetts public higher education shows a system in which droves of students enroll in college, but many ultimately find themselves underprepared for college-level work and drop out.

The report — titled “Time to Lead” and being released Thursday by the state Board of Higher Education as part of its two-year-old Vision Project — is the first comprehensive, public, data-driven comparison with other states that Massachusetts has ever under­taken. It will be updated year to year, and all results will be available to the public on the Internet.

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The numbers are a clarion call for the state to do better, said Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland, especially as the Massachusetts public system grows to encompass more than half of its overall college population and as the labor market shifts toward jobs that require post-secondary degrees.

“I think this shows we’re a system that gets it,” Freeland said. “We’re ready to hold ourselves accountable by being honest with everyone about where we are.”

The report says Massachusetts is among the nation’s leading states for college enrollment. Seventy-seven percent of its high school graduates pursue postsecondary ­degrees, compared to a national average of 65 percent.

Massachusetts also leads the nation in percentages of public high school students who test as academically proficient in 12th-grade reading and math.

But those percentages are high only in comparison to those of other states. Considered by themselves, they are troubling: Just 46 percent of public high school students in Massachusetts read at a 12th-grade level, and only 36 percent can handle the equivalent level of math. (Other states do worse.)

The upshot is that high school students’ abilities do not line up with colleges’ expectations. Sixty-five percent of Massachusetts community college students need at least one ­remedial class before they can take on college-level work, as do 22 percent of students at state universities and 7 percent at UMass institutions, according to the report.

The state also has significant achievement gaps between ­racial and socioeconomic groups. African-Americans, ­Latinos, and first-generation college-goers are less likely than whites to test as academically proficient nationwide, but the difference is more pronounced in Massachusetts.

The report highlights programs that may narrow the gaps, such as a strategy at Bridgewater State University that has paired minority students with faculty mentors and ramped up their academic advis­ing options. “The gap has pretty much been closed,” said Bridgewater State president Dana Mohler-Faria.

Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College, said his school is focusing on moving students quickly through remedial education. The school has adopted a targeted form of math instruction that focuses on students’ weak points. That way, he said, “they don’t have to dwell on areas they already know” — and they go on to college-level courses sooner, increasing their chances of graduating.

According to the report, Massachusetts public higher education rates about the ­national average on many other measures, such as scores on ­national licensing and graduate school exams and alignment of degree choice with workforce development goals.

“This is what’s been true more or less for my 40 years in this business,” said Freeland.

In one sense, the findings are good news, said UMass president Robert Caret, because they show that the public system can hit average expectations with less-than-average funding. Massachusetts has cut back spending on public higher education while head counts have surged. On Wednesday, Caret announced that enrollment at the five campuses is at an all-time high of 70,874.

“We’ve done extraordinarily well, given the level of financial support we get,” Caret said. “It’s just that if you want to be a leading state, you’ve got to do something different than what we’re doing.”

But Freeland cautioned against focusing too much on the funding question. “This ­report is not us whining about resources,” he said.

The report does not assess schools individually, but breaks them down into three categories: community colleges, state universities, and the five-branch University of Massachusetts system. All of the state’s 29 colleges contributed data.

Representatives from some of the schools said they were surprised at a few of the report’s conclusions, given that an earlier draft was more positive on several points.

Paul Grogan ­— chief of the Boston Foundation, which has lobbied for better alignment of degree programs with employer needs — praised the colleges for cooperating with the ­report’s assessment.

“The dirty little secret is, none of us really wants to be account­able,” Grogan said. “But this gives a sense of urgency and opportunity that has to be seized. Now the publics can make themselves so much more important for the future of the state than they have been seen to be.”

Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com.
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