Public Higher Education Recap #2

High Quality and Free = A Public Higher Education System Our People Deserve

We in PHENOM don’t believe in “zero sum” games.  We don’t believe that having a high-quality public higher education system is one side of the equation and some form of debt-free access is on the other.  We have always believed that students deserve both — no barriers to a public college or university that has the staff, faculty, and facilities of the highest order.  Our residents deserve, and our Commonwealth needs, nothing less.

PHENOM’s Executive Director, Natalie Higgins, spoke at the State House last week on behalf of two bills — H1068/S678 (An Act relative to strengthening and expanding affordable, quality higher education opportunities for residents of the Commonwealth) and H1070 (An Act making community colleges in Massachusetts free for residents of the state) —  that try to address this vision. Here are some excerpts from her testimony:

“I want to tell you about two students stories, from one of our reports.

One student from Holyoke Community College told us: “The financial aid office told me that all I could be eligible for were loans; some people are getting paid to go to school but I couldn’t get anything! This country makes endless claims about the importance of higher education but Massachusetts has made it nearly impossible to attain it. As I juggle two jobs and a full-time class load, I can barely get enough money to cover the absurd cost of textbooks, which then means I can’t buy a car or move out of my terrible apartment.”

Another student from Framingham State University said: “Since starting college, I’ve worked two jobs. My mother has done the same. It’s hard for my family right now since my mother is a part-time student at Northeastern, with my sister and I both being students in the state college system. Every year student fees have increased and every year it seems harder to afford college. By the time I graduate, I will only have at most a quarter of my student loans paid for, to go along with a very high credit card debt which comes from buying textbooks.”

PHENOM’s report, The Affordability Crisis in Public Higher Education in Massachusetts, came out in 2007! I have serious concerns that it is eight years later and stories from students are just as upsetting. We desperately need to reverse the trends of state disinvestment in public higher education. While we saw increases in the last three fiscal years, the state’s commitment is still nearly 20% below FY2001 levels. Massachusetts currently ranks 42nd nationally in higher education support per capita. For a state that prides itself on being a leader in higher education, this is unacceptable.

We are pleased that the legislature is finally moving forward on the call for free community college which we put out in a 2009 report, Working on Free Community College.  But now we believe that free community college is too little too late. We have three Democratic presidential candidates proposing some form of debt-free college, including one — the leader at the moment — calling for completely free public higher education.  We use the term “debt-free” because we want you to recognize that the affordability barriers for most students go beyond just tuition and fees, and relate to living expenses and textbooks.  We must support legislation that will create debt-free paths across all three segments, allowing students who want to pursue a four-year degree to start in a four-year institution, removing some of the hurdles around transfer credits and the additional stress on the community college system.”


In the news:

This working paper from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, released last week, paints a disturbing picture.  Two decades of declining investment in faculty hiring and salaries, and consequent increase in the number of underpaid and badly treated adjunct faculty, has meant a worse experience for students, especially our lower-income and minority students.

Massachusetts has a lot to learn from California in terms of attracting and then graduating a diverse student body.  

Evan Horowitz reminds us of what Horace Mann told us nearly two hundred years ago:  We don’t have gold, or silver, or oil so we’d better build an economy on an educated populace.  And we have, but we are underinvesting in the public higher education which produces the people who stay and build Massachusetts.


Upcoming Events:

Wednesday October 14th (1PM-5PM) — A Forum on the Crisis of Affordability of Higher Education with Special Guest Congressman McGovern at UMass Amherst

Saturday November 7th (9AM-4PM) — College Access Conference at MassBay Community College

For more events, check out PHENOM’s calendar