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IDEAS

Massachusetts excels at higher education — for the white and well-off

The state spends only $225 per capita on higher education, below the national average and way below a number of much poorer states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kansas

Bunker Hill Community College is doing important work to help part-time students.
Bunker Hill Community College is doing important work to help part-time students.Boston Globe

Massachusetts is the most educated state in the nation, an achievement that translates into better health and a stronger economy than most Americans experience.

Public four-year universities deserve a share of the credit, since they have relatively high graduation rates surpassed by only seven other states. Add to that the extraordinary concentration of private colleges that draw students from all over the world, a healthy slice of whom stay. Then, there are the jobs at the hospitals, biotech firms, and other companies that attract to Massachusetts talented people who arrive with their diplomas already framed.

But don’t let that lull you into thinking that all is well. Only 18 percent of Latino and a quarter of Black adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 45 percent of white adults.

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And the state’s public higher education system is not doing enough to close that gap. Two-thirds of the Black and Latino undergraduates attending public colleges in the state are enrolled at underfunded community colleges, where the graduation rates are low. Meanwhile, though four-year colleges in Massachusetts have pretty good outcomes, they are unaffordable for low-income students, and enroll very few of them.

In short, Massachusetts higher education is working nicely for well-off, white students. That’s not good enough, especially as the state has grown more diverse and some college has become a virtual necessity to get decent work in this economy. Don’t just take my word for it, Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago has raised the same concerns and declared that, “we in higher education cannot just rest on our laurels.”

It has been a truism for decades that Greater Boston’s status as an intellectual world capital allowed Massachusetts to skate by without worrying too much about its public higher education. That might have been fine in the days when a B-average, blue-collar student could work their way through a Northeastern or a Boston University. Today many of those places have become too elite and too expensive to serve that role, while smaller private colleges are folding altogether.

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The University of Massachusetts has gotten better academically, but at the same time, it has moved out of reach of many students in both exclusivity and cost. Only 16 percent of students in the UMass system come from families in the bottom 40 percent of the national income distribution. Remarkably, lower-income students are nearly as scarce at the regional state universities, such as Bridgewater State and Fitchburg State.

Consider, also, that only about 21,000 Black and Latino students attend four-year public colleges in Massachusetts, while nearly 41,000 are enrolled in community colleges. The performance of those community colleges is not something for Massachusetts to brag about, with only four in 10 students earning a degree within six years — worse than 24 other states. Not so surprising, though, given that Massachusetts community colleges get well below average funding.

The good news is, there is lots of fertile ground for improvement. For one thing, the state has a number of community college leaders making the best of the resources they have. Bunker Hill Community College, for example, has drawn national attention for its commitment to fighting student hunger. And I have studied its work to better support part-time students, who are a majority of community college students but face poor odds of ever earning a degree.

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Because there are few answers for how to better serve part-time students, most colleges avoid talking about them altogether. Bunker Hill, by contrast, has spent the last several years working on ways to boost their odds of graduating. One of those efforts is learning communities, which are intimate seminars that squeeze into the classroom a host of supports that part-time students usually miss out on, such as coaching, peer mentoring, and career guidance. Early signs suggest that it’s helping part-time students — who are predominantly students of color — persist.

So there is a lot of potential to improve Massachusetts community colleges with the right public commitment. One thing that is definitely not helping is an antiquated funding system, where each two- or four-year institution (apart from the UMass system) gets its own line item in the state budget. That means that their funding can be influenced by political capital — or lack thereof — over a rational assessment of need.

Last fall, state leaders overhauled K-12 funding and committed substantial new resources to make public schools more equitable. It would be powerful to build on that investment by doing the same thing at the college level, setting up an equitable funding mechanism and infusing the system with the money it needs both for institutions and for financial aid. The goals should be to excel at supporting community college students and to help them transfer to four-year institutions, and at the same time make sure those four-year colleges enroll and support more students of color and low-income students.

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I mention financial aid because the good outcomes at four-year colleges are at risk if the affordability crisis deepens. The Education Trust recently found that Massachusetts was only a bit better than the national average for affordability at four-year institutions. A low-income student at a public four-year university in Massachusetts would have to work over 20 hours a week at minimum wage to pay for college, even accounting for financial aid.

It wouldn’t be that painful to taxpayers for Massachusetts to invest more. The state spends only $225 per capita on higher education, below the national average and way below a number of much poorer states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kansas. It’s also less than Massachusetts spent before the Great Recession.

The state’s higher education leadership is also aware of the imperative to change. In December 2018, the Board of Higher Education adopted, as its top priority, equity for underserved students, particularly students of color. Policymakers in the Department of Higher Education cited projections that Massachusetts needs more college graduates to maintain the state’s economic strength, yet the population of new high school graduates is plummeting.

Clearly, the answer is to invest in all the native talent Massachusetts has, no matter their race or income.

Marcella Bombardieri is an associate director for higher education at the Center for American Progress and a former Boston Globe reporter. Send comments about this story to ideas@globe.com.

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