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editorial

College report card is spotty, but provides needed info

Three years ago, state higher education commissioner Richard Freeland promised to provide periodic, unsentimental assessments of the Commonwealth’s two- and four-year public colleges. Freeland kept his word. Despite a somewhat optimistic title — “Within Our Sights” — the commissioner’s latest report is sobering. Yet it provides something that should be useful to college administrators and policy makers alike: an honest assessment of strengths that individual universities can build on and weaknesses that they must address.

The periodic assessments are part of Freeland’s broader effort to improve the quality of public higher education in Massachusetts. The most disappointing finding in the latest report is the persistent gap between the skills of public college graduates and the needs of the job market. Information technology and advanced manufacturing companies need graduates with bachelor’s degrees in related fields. Job openings for hospital lab technicians and other fields requiring associates degrees also go unfilled. By 2020, according to the report, the state college and university system will produce 35,000 fewer graduates with science- and technology-based degrees than the state’s economy needs.

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Massachusetts takes pride in being the state with the highest percentage of degree holders among working-age adults. But the Commonwealth can’t expect to retain its top spot for long when graduation rates are flat at state institutions of higher education, and the more important fact now is that the demand for college graduates here chronically outstrips the supply.

Community colleges are hardly ready to pick up the slack. Of the 11,000 community college students who were required to take a remedial math class in the fall of 2010, 9,000 have yet to pass a single credit-bearing course, according to the report.

Meanwhile, public college and university students score at or below the national average on nursing, accounting, and other licensure examinations. College entrance and readiness rates for students of color trail those of white students by about 30 percent.

The report isn’t all doom and gloom. UMass Lowell and Framingham State have shown impressive increases in graduation rates in recent years. Massasoit Community College and Bridgewater State are drawing more students of color into science concentrations. The report points to multiple successes and solutions at several of the nine state universities and 15 community colleges. Freeland’s goal is to bring those improvements to scale.

In the current fiscal year, the Legislature stepped up with more funding for the state college system. It was part of a covenant based, in part, on Freeland’s promise to provide report cards — no matter how disappointing — on the public higher ed system and hold college presidents accountable for performance. It will take a few years to determine if that investment is paying off, but Freeland’s latest report card gives schools and lawmakers a stronger basis for future decisions.

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