Opinion

opinion | Max Page

How to improve community colleges

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

THE CURRENT debate about the future of community colleges is nothing new. Their mission has always been contested. Some see these open-admission, relatively inexpensive colleges as providing technical training focused on local workforce needs. Others say they provide the first two years of a baccalaureate degree and facilitate transfer to a four-year college or university. Still others see community colleges as providing a variety of non-credit courses and support for students needing to obtain a high school equivalency degree, or simply advancing their personal or professional interests.

Some - including the Boston Foundation, whose report on community colleges seems to have been the model for the Patrick administration’s recent proposal - think the multiple missions of community colleges are a sign of confusion and inefficiency. Actually, they are the sign that they are doing their jobs.

Community colleges must continue to play their three roles. The question is simply one of balance. But the governor’s recent proposal would tilt the scale the other way, making community colleges little more than publicly funded workforce-training centers for private business. This is as bad for the Commonwealth as it is for community college students.

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A bachelor’s degree provides not only access to higher paying jobs, but also emphasizes the broad liberal arts education crucial to helping students to deal with living in an increasingly complex global society. Community colleges must continue to play their transfer role while still providing access to immediate career programs. The governor’s emphasis on workplace education short-circuits the many students who aspire to a higher education. Furthermore, it effectively constitutes a tracking system for minority and working class students, who are concentrated in community colleges.

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Rather than throw out the invaluable, multiple missions of community colleges, how about some real reform?

First, we must create a foundation budget for each community college; all are woefully underfunded. Community colleges have traditionally had far less funding than the state universities, and have been hit especially hard by a decade of disinvestment. They do not generally have the capacity to do major fundraising, recruit higher-paying out-of-state students, or charge the high fees that UMass institutions do. A starting point would be to raise all community colleges’ budgets up to that of the college with the highest per-student budget.

Second, just as in K-12 education, the most important factor in the quality of education is the faculty hired to teach and do research. This is especially true for community colleges that consistently teach the most racially and ethnically diverse student body in the public higher education system. This sector of our system deserves to have well-compensated faculty and staff. And yet the situation is upside down. Full-time faculty earn a little more than half of what UMass faculty do, even those with equivalent degrees. Upwards of 75 percent of community college classes are taught by adjunct faculty; the reverse ratio is true at UMass and most of the state universities. One of the greatest reforms to community colleges would be to steadily move toward more full-time, tenure-system faculty while improving the conditions and job security of adjunct faculty.

Third, community colleges serve huge numbers of students, with a range of needs and interests. The need for support staff - in admissions, mentoring, advising, tutoring, financial aid, counseling, and libraries - is greater than ever. It is precisely these crucial positions that have been eliminated. Staff positions should be hired in proportion to admitting new students and hiring more faculty.

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Finally, we must improve the affordability of community colleges so that students can afford to matriculate and are not strapped with debt upon graduation. The explosion of student debt threatens the role public higher education plays in providing a pathway into the middle class. We have to move beyond the “high tuition and high aid’’ model that Massachusetts has unsuccessfully employed: as tuition and fees have skyrocketed, the state has failed to put money on the aid side of the equation, such that now the average state financial aid grant covers less than 10 percent of the total cost attending a state college.

Perhaps the state should return to an idea Patrick proposed in 2007, when he called for free community college. A step in that direction would be legislative passage of the Finish Line grants, which would provide a tuition- and fee-free final year, at any public college or university in Massachusetts for those below a certain level of income.

One of the buzzwords of our politics today is “accountability.’’ Before asking public colleges and universities, their students, faculty, and staff to do more counting, measuring, and testing, government leaders should be held accountable and provide adequate funding for our institutions to do their jobs.

Max Page is a professor of architecture at UMass Amherst and vice president of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.