Boston’s two community colleges, Bunker Hill and Roxbury, recently welcomed new presidents, and promised fresh starts. But after all the greetings and handshakes, the two need to fully embrace the important reforms the Legislature approved last summer. So should the 13 community colleges sprinkled elsewhere around the state.
As a group, Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges lag behind much of the nation in some important markers of success. In a 2012 CNNMoney ranking, Kansas, California, Minnesota, and Iowa all had at least four community colleges where at least 60 percent of students graduated within three years or transferred into four-year institutions. Nineteen states had at least one such institution. Massachusetts had none. In response, Governor Patrick and the Legislature, acting on a report from The Boston Foundation, approved a new program of incentives for community colleges to fulfill their potential as bridges to good jobs or further education.
This school year began with a $20 million funding boost from Beacon Hill that will assure at least a 3.5 percent budget increase for each school — and far bigger increases for some. Bristol Community College in Fall River and Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, for instance, were getting less than half of the money per student that Roxbury Community College received. So Bristol and Quinsigamond will receive increases of 21 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
But there’s a catch: Over the next three years, about half of a school’s future funding will depend on its ability to meet certain performance measures. They include student credit hours completed, rates of graduation or transfer to four-year colleges, and degrees earned in the scientific, technology, and health care fields critical to the Massachusetts economy. Several other states, led by Tennessee in 2010, have also linked funding to performance. Tennessee officials are already seeing higher graduation rates, even as enrollments of low-income students have risen.
In Massachusetts, some educators have argued that setting statewide performance standards limits an individual school’s ability to serve student populations with disparate needs. But Pam Eddinger, the new president of Bunker Hill Community College, welcomed the new standards in an interview as “courageous.” As president at Moorpark College in Ventura County, Calif., she oversaw a school where 64 percent of students graduated or transferred to four-year schools, according to the CNNMoney rankings.
Roxbury’s new president, Valerie Roberson said the new standards are “fair and equitable,” despite facing a steep hill of confidence-building in a school that too often wasted financial and civic support with mismanagement. Her own confidence comes from accomplishments in Illinois. Olive-Harvey College, where she was president, and Joliet Junior College, where she was vice president for academic affairs, performed well relative to peer institutions.
Roberson and Eddinger need to know that the state is behind them in their efforts to upgrade Boston’s community colleges. But this time, the Legislature has spelled out a clear definition of success. They must achieve it.