Opinion

DERRICK Z. JACKSON

If a college had an extra $200 million . . .

sylvia Baldeva for the boston globe

For some perspective, hedge fund billionaire John Paulson’s $400 million gift to Harvard earlier this year dwarfs the $226 million state budget for all 15 of Massachusetts’ community colleges. And the $229 million in state funding for all nine state colleges. It would even cover four-fifths of the state funding that the UMass system receives.

Indeed, Paulson’s money would be transformative if it were spent within the state’s public college system.

With that in mind, I asked the state’s leaders in public higher education what they’d do if an extra couple hundred million dollars — or even $400 million — landed in their coffers.

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“I would do cartwheels!” said Bristol Community College president John Sbrega. “And then the college would invest it, and with the income pay the out-of-pocket costs for all 12,500 students.”

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Bob Pura, Greenfield Community College president, had so many ideas about what to do with $200 million, he sent me a 10-page document titled, “The Gift That Changed a Region.”

Greenfield could freeze all tuition and fees and create a sliding scale of affordability to allow students the chance to graduate debt-free. Pura would also create something he calls the Western Massachusetts Promise — graduates living in the state’s four western counties would have their financial needs fully met if they transferred to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Worcester State University, or UMass Amherst.

Pura would fund paid internships in Franklin County, subsidize expanded regional bus routes for students — he noted that it’s not uncommon to hear students say, “I can’t take that class because it meets three times a week and I can’t afford the gas” — and beef up staff development, course counseling, career advising, and support for students with physical and psychiatric challenges or who have recently been released from jail. The $200 million would be enough to modernize library and information technology services and lay the foundation to make buildings more sustainable, build a regional performing arts center, and establish a center for rural sustainable development.

“I must also admit to the occasional lottery ticket,” Pura said. “For that $1, and until the numbers are real, the thoughts about ‘what would you do if . . .’ can be both helpful and fun.”

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Then again, Greenfield’s largest gift ever came from an anonymous source who has donated $3.5 million over the past 10 years — including $1 million to endow a nursing faculty position.

Berkshire Community College also sent in a meticulous set of proposals. It would establish an endowment, investing $10 million each year to enhance student services as well as to offer scholarship aid and take care of deferred maintenance.

But it also offered some more nuanced ideas for the cash: It could be used to help half-time students go full-time; support high-school robotics programs; add a second reference librarian; repave a 44-year-old hardscape; and expand the campus food pantry. “Even though this was a fictitious budget exercise, the distribution of funds was taken seriously,” said Berkshire president Ellen Kennedy. “A 40 percent budget increase would be a game-changer.”

What follows is an edited version of some other schools’ wish lists.

University of Massachusetts Boston: A free ride for every graduate of the Boston Public Schools who maintains at least a 3.0 grade point average. Recruit faculty to expand research programs in environmental science, brain science, and health disparity.

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Mount Wachusett Community College: Many steps similar to Greenfield’s, but also a major expansion of early college credit in dual-enrollment programs for high school students.

Roxbury Community College: Meet all student financial aid needs. Undertake necessary renovations. Create new community workforce development and cultural programs — all free of charge. President Valerie Roberson said $200 million would be enough to create a sustainable business model for the school “for decades, if not centuries.”

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts: Meet the financial needs of current students and erase student debt for everyone who graduated over the past 10 years.

Middlesex Community College: Establish a major endowment. The returns would be used to hire more full-time faculty at better pay and to digitize the campus.

Northern Essex Community College: Establish an endowment that would be used to freeze tuition and boost retention supports for first-generation college students (who make up 40 percent of the student body). Other money would go toward attacking a $90 million deferred-maintenance backlog.

UMass Medical School: Attempt to make attendance at the school free, as a way to ease a nationwide physician shortage that is expected to reach 90,000 the by 2025. Special consideration would be given to students committed to primary care.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

Related:

Steven R. DiSalvo: How to fix the college debt crisis

Dante Ramos: Has inequality doomed small, private colleges?

Debra Spark: Why do you have to be so accomplished to get into college?

Hindsight: Justin Morrill, the man behind America’s higher education

Ideas: Bringing a charter-school approach to college