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The Boston Globe

Opinion

  

Edward L. Glaeser

Scholars hurt by quality of state colleges

It’s one thing to entice promising students to stay in Massachusetts by giving them free tuition at state colleges. But making sure those colleges serve them well is a much harder problem. The Commonwealth has yet to solve that problem, and the deficiencies of a popular scholarship program point to the enormous challenges facing public higher education in Massachusetts.

In theory, who could find fault with the Adams Scholarship program, which waives tuition at in-state public colleges for students who do well on the state-mandated MCAS test? But according to new research by Sarah Cohodes and my colleague Joshua Goodman, Adams Scholarship winners go to less-competitive colleges, with lower average SAT scores, than they might otherwise have attended. Worse yet, they don’t save much money.

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When it began, the program sounded promising as a way to keep young people in state: Under Governor Mitt Romney’s original plan in 2004, students who scored in the top one-quarter on the MCAS would get four tuition-free years at the University of Massachusetts, any state college, or any community college. To make sure the program wouldn’t just help the affluent, the rules were changed so that Adams scholars must score in the top quarter of their school district’s MCAS distribution, get an advanced score in either English or math, and score at least proficient in both.

At the time, there was plenty of concern about the plan’s cost, but few imagined that the program might hurt the scholars themselves.

The first Adams acceptance letters emphasized only the free tuition — not the significant fees that, like the fine print on a credit card contract, could impose heavy costs on Adams scholars. (Recent letters are much clearer.) In 2005, annual tuition at UMass was $1,714, and mandatory fees were $7,566. Tuition today is still $1,714, but fees have risen to $11,516. I’m not counting room and board, just costs like the $9,414 “curriculum fee” — which Adams scholars still need to pay.

To study the effects of Adams Scholarships, Cohodes and Goodman looked at similar students — those just above and just below the relevant cutoff in their district — and controlled for race, gender, and family income. Some of what they found is to be expected: Adams winners were 8.3 percentage points more likely than non-winners to enroll in a four-year in-state public institution, and 5.1 percentage points less likely to enroll out of state.

Yet other findings are deeply worrisome. After four years, the students who had just squeaked over the Adams threshold were 2.2 percentage points less likely to graduate from a four-year college than students who had just missed out on the scholarship. Some of this gap may disappear over time. But at least initially, the award seems to have hurt academic outcomes — presumably by steering students to in-state public institutions, which after years of budget woes are attracting students with lower credentials and employing fewer teachers per student.

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Adams winners did, at least, save a little money; the colleges they attended cost them about $1,300 less per year than schools that non-award winners attended. But those savings seem small, in light of the reduced chance of earning a four-year degree that could easily be worth $1 million over their lifetime.

These results don’t imply that the Adams program should be scrapped. The scholarship may still keep students in-state after college. To serve students better, we could make Adams Scholarships more of a voucher, which could be used at some private schools as well as public ones.

Still, that wouldn’t solve the predicament of Massachusetts public colleges, which are trying to deliver a product that is comparable to what private colleges provide, but with far fewer resources. If we want them to compete, the public schools need more cash, either from taxpayers or from higher tuitions, especially for wealthier students.

Governor Patrick has proposed more centralized control in public higher education, but another approach would be to follow the US Education Department’s “Race to the Top” competitive grant program and provide more funds for those schools that show good results.

States that, like Massachusetts, have strong private schools have historically short-changed their public colleges, but MIT and Harvard are not substitutes for Bridgewater State. Our public colleges and universities need support if they are to be competitive.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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