The Podium

Keep the ‘public’ in public higher education

A view of the UMass-Amherst campus. (Bilyana Dimitrova photo/Boston Globe).
A view of the UMass-Amherst campus. (Bilyana Dimitrova photo/Boston Globe).

We are intrigued to see the results of two recent polls voicing support for Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to invest in education and transportation. While we are prepared to leave the specifics of the tax policy debate to others, we note with interest that a surprisingly large group of voters — 48 percent in a UMass Lowell/Boston Herald survey, 54 percent in another survey by pollster Tom Kiley — have endorsed a plan that would result in increased taxes for some higher-income residents of the Commonwealth (let it be noted that all Massachusetts residents would pay lower sales taxes if the Legislature approves the governor’s revenue plan.)

We are watching the public debate and discussion over state taxes and spending with particular interest this year because the governor’s plan contains what we believe to be historic proposed investments in our underfunded system of public higher education. What’s at stake? As Governor Patrick said in his address to students at the State House on March 5, “If we are going to keep the ‘public’ in public higher ed, then the public has to step up, too.”

As chairmen of the Boards of Higher Education and the University of Massachusetts, we know that keeping the “public” in public higher education is more than a slogan. It is an urgent and essential proposition in a state that lives and dies by its brainpower. By 2018, Massachusetts will lead the nation in the number of jobs — 70 percent — requiring a college education. Where will these skilled workers needed for industry sectors such as health care, IT, life sciences and advanced manufacturing come from? All indications are that the graduates of community colleges, state universities and campuses of the University of Massachusetts will provide the lion’s share of these future employees, with 52 percent of all undergraduates in the state now attending public campuses (up from 30 percent in 1967). Nine of every 10 public college and university students remain in state a year after graduation.


Are we up to the task of being the primary builder of the state’s future workforce? By many accounts, the public campuses we oversee deliver much more than they might be expected to, given that state funding has not kept pace with an enrollment growth of 21 percent over the last five years. We are committed to squeezing all we can from every dollar of revenue allocated by the legislature. UMass has lowered the per-pupil costs of education. The University is seriously intentional and genuinely committed to identifying efficiencies and creating new cost-savings initiatives. These steps were cited by all three major bond rating services as they awarded strong ratings for the University’s recent $284 million bond offering to finance campus construction.

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Likewise, our community colleges and state universities have formed PACE, the Partnership to Advance Collaboration and Efficiency. By working together, the 24 campuses are on the road to achieving significant savings for taxpayers through bulk purchasing and IT consolidation.

The commitment to doing more with less without sacrificing quality should not detract, however, from the disturbing reality of cost-shifting from the state to students. Although this dynamic is in play across the nation it has especially dire consequences in Massachusetts, where we rank 30th in funding for public higher education. As state support has flat lined, the burden of tuition and fees has transferred to students and their families, which is why Patrick has embraced UMass President Robert Caret’s call for the state to support at least 50 percent of educational costs at UMass.

We believe that the very mission of Massachusetts public higher education — “to ensure that Massachusetts residents have the opportunity to benefit from a higher education that enriches their lives and advances their contributions to the civic life, economic development, and social progress of the Commonwealth” — hangs in the balance of the current tax and spending discussion. If we are to produce the state’s future citizenry and workforce, and if economic growth depends upon our ability to graduate those needed to fill skilled jobs in high-growth industries, then it is in every taxpayer’s interest to keep the “public” in public higher education. Simply put, some things are worth paying for.

Charles Desmond is chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. Henry M. Thomas III is chairman of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees and a member of the state Board of Higher Education.