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Charlie Baker will need to catch up on challenges of higher education

Charlie Baker (center).
Charlie Baker (center).AP

Governor-elect Charlie Baker boasts a lot of areas of expertise, but higher education isn’t one of them. During the campaign, he promoted ideas on how to make public higher education more affordable. But he is pretty much starting from scratch when it comes to elevating educational performance at the University of Massachusetts system, nine state colleges, and 15 community colleges.

Luckily, outgoing Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland will be leaving Baker with a how-to manual. Four years ago, Freeland and the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education launched what they termed the Vision Project, designed to draw greater fiscal support for public higher education in exchange for greater accountability measures, including sharper focus on graduation rates, passing rates on licensure examinations, and other indicators of quality. Most importantly, the Vision Project made it clear that the state’s public colleges and universities would no longer be content to limp along in the shadows of the state’s prestigious, private institutions.

Baker has proposed opportunities to earn bachelor’s degrees at state universities in a three-year time frame, greater use of online learning, and an expansion of paid co-op programs. These are good ideas that should help to lower the cost of college.

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But the most serious higher education issue in Massachusetts is the dearth of graduates from state colleges and universities, especially in technical fields.

A recent report on the talent shortage by the state’s higher education board estimates — based on current degree production and enrollment projections — that the public college system will fall about 60,000 graduates short of what is needed to keep the state competitive by 2025. The report goes on to note that “Massachusetts needs more than 5,000 computer science and information technology graduates right now.”

The mobile graduates of private colleges in Massachusetts won’t be around to pick up the slack. But nine out of 10 graduates of public colleges and universities are still here working or seeking advanced degrees one year later, according to the report. Baker needs to be thinking now about ways to ensure that tens of thousands of additional graduates walk across the stages of public universities on graduation day.

Governor Deval Patrick and state lawmakers stepped up with increased funding for higher education during the two most recent fiscal years. But the campuses suffered disproportionately during the recession. Baker understands that shifting more of the costs of a college education onto struggling families will produce miserable results and even lower graduation rates. So he must be prepared with a plan to increase state investments to a level commensurate with the best public systems in the country.

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Patrick also elevated the role of community colleges, especially by introducing performance-based budgeting and insisting that courses align with the needs of local businesses and industry. Baker’s understanding of large health care systems should be especially helpful in determining ways for community colleges to prepare students for medical-related careers.

Higher education was touched upon only lightly during the gubernatorial campaign. But Baker will find it to be a weighty matter come January.