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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

State economy depends on more support for public colleges

 “Time to Lead” is an analysis of the state’s public colleges.

“Time to Lead” is an analysis of the state’s public colleges.

Massachusetts lawmakers and education officials have proven time and again that they will turn the world upside to give a competitive edge to public school students in grades K-12. By comparison, a public college student could be drowning and expect nothing from the state but another faceful of water.

“Time to Lead,’’ a recent report on the need for excellence in public higher education, puts a sharp focus on the problem. The strong use of vibrant color and thoughtful design elements jumps out immediately at the reader. As government documents go, it’s practically gorgeous. But it’s not so pretty after reading the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s analysis of the state’s 29 public university campuses and community colleges.

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Is Massachusetts a national leader in the college completion rates of its public higher ed students? No. Or a leader in aligning public degree programs with future workforce needs in health care, business, finance, science and technology? Nope. Does the state distinguish itself in terms of the pass rates of public higher ed students on national licensure exams? No, again. Or in reducing disparities in the college-going rates between whites and minorities? You get the picture.

The state’s public colleges are overshadowed by world class private universities whose students come from near and far to pursue their studies and prestigious “externships’’ across the globe. The students at Framingham, Westfield, Bridgewater, Salem, and other state universities may not be first in line for conservation experiences in Africa or public health research projects in Asia. But somebody has to stay here and do the day-to-day work of the state.

Two-thirds of Massachusetts high school graduates who attend college in-state do so at a public campus, according to the report. And surveys find that 9 out of 10 of those who graduate can be found one year later working or pursuing further education somewhere between Boston and the Berkshires. In many ways, the offerings on the public campuses are more important to the future of knowledge-based industries in Massachusetts than what takes places in elite private universities.

Budgets don’t begin to reflect the importance of public colleges in a state that depends so heavily on a highly-educated workforce. In 2011, Massachusetts ranked 30th among states in higher education funding per student, according to the report. We had our lunch handed to us by Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, and North Carolina, among many others.

In response to the need to hike fees at the University of Massachusetts by almost 5 percent, UMass President Robert Caret has noted that the state provided about 60 percent of the cost of education programs at UMass a decade ago, while families picked up the rest. Now that proportion has practically flipped. And UMass families have a good deal in comparison to other state universities. Worcester State, for example, receives only about a quarter of its operating budget from Beacon Hill.

Higher ed commissioner Richard Freeland has worked both sides of the academic street. As president of Northeastern University, he helped to transform a so-called safety school into a highly selective institution. Now he wants to do the same for the state college system. Two years ago, Freeland unveiled his “Vision Project’’ for the public higher ed system, an attempt to balance the need for better support from Beacon Hill with greater efficiencies on campus. The report is an honest look at where the public education system stands and where it needs to go.

Freeland believes that lawmakers are starting to recognize the need for Massachusetts to be a national leader in public higher education. He points to new funds for improving college completion rates and efforts to strengthen the connection between community college offerings and the workplace. The report, he said, “establishes a foundation from which we can pursue our aspirations.’’

But why is this such a hard sell? Maybe it’s because public college students don’t elicit the protective instincts of lawmakers and policy makers who practically well up when discussing the fate of K-12 students. But this isn’t about little kids singing at a holiday reception at the State House. It’s about the future of public colleges and universities — the backbone of the state’s economy.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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