What if our graduation rates, test scores, and overall educational level improve? What happens when more students recognize their potential and see higher education as the next logical stepping stone to success? What will we say to them when they can’t afford to attend college or when our colleges are so full and so under-funded that they cannot provide the quality education our students deserve?
Even with all our wonderful private colleges, more Massachusetts students attend public colleges. And they stay to work and pay taxes in Massachusetts at far higher rates than those going to private colleges. Yet, Massachusetts increased funding for public higher education less than any state besides South Carolina in the last 10 years. And we cut more than any other state in the last 5 years – more than 25%. We have raised student fees dramatically so they are 40% above the national average; enrollment, especially at the community colleges, has skyrocketed while the numbers of faculty and staff have declined. We are in a crisis, headed toward a catastrophe, just at the time that report after report shows that at least 2 years of college are critical for success, that retention rates are not where they ought to be, and that cost is the biggest barrier to attending college. Oh, did I mention that the state has cut need-based financial aid in half the past 20 years?
While K-12 is participating in the Race to the Top, PHENOM and higher education are in a Race to the Median. We believe that to compete with other states and to properly serve our young people, Massachusetts must increase state support for public higher education so we are at least at the national average. At the same time, costs must decrease to the national average. If we could do those 2 complementary and totally reasonable things, we could guarantee students a high-quality education with reasonable class sizes and a stable faculty. We could increase access for lower income families and insure that our campuses, our graduates and our well-paying jobs are as diverse as our state. We could give our faculty and staff raises long-overdue raises and reasonable workloads, and we could grow our economy. Investing in public higher education helps everyone in the state. It generates more economic activity than almost any other investment.
Will this cost money? Of course. So we need to say a few words about revenues. Massachusetts’ overall tax rate is below the national average, and the public services our residents want are under-funded. So of course we need to raise more revenue. But let’s be smart about it. Last year, you got a lot of grief for passing a regressive and not very large tax increase. Next time, increase taxes on those who can afford it, and generate a lot of revenue. You’re going to get grief no matter what – at least make it worth it.
Be smart, Massachusetts. Let’s achieve a Great State of Mind. Invest in public higher education. We ask the Ways and Means Committees to propose an adequate budget for our campuses and for need-based financial aid; but we also ask you to start looking ahead and joining us in the Race to the Median.