Guest Column- Massachusetts Public Higher Education: Separate and Unequal?

By Ira Rubenzahl, President, Springfield Technical Community College

When we look back on terrible wrongs–slavery, unjust wars, periods of deep and pervasive inequality–we may wonder how individuals tolerated and ignored these realities. Yet this is, unfortunately, a human tendency that Margaret Heffernan details in Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril. “We know, intellectually, that confronting an issue is the only way to resolve it. But any resolution will disrupt the status quo. Given the choice between conflict and change on the one hand, and inertia on the other, the ostrich position can seem very attractive.”

Students at Springfield Technical Community College Photo by Kerry Ferrero
Students at Springfield Technical Community College
Photo by Kerry Ferrero

Within public higher education we have a number of issues that have been avoided and ignored, yet cry out for discussion and action. One such is the distribution of individuals of color within public higher education. Like other states, Massachusetts public higher education continues to be, to a large extent, separate and unequal, with the preponderance (68%) of African-American and Latino students at the community colleges and the minority (32%) split between the University of Massachusetts campuses and the nine state universities.

The good news is that the number of black and Latino students has increased markedly between the fall of 2009 to the fall of 2013, the latest semester for which figures are available. Over these four years, black student enrollment in our public colleges and universities increased by 19%, Hispanic enrollment grew by a whopping 46%, and white enrollment declined by 3%. These numbers reflect the changing demographics of Massachusetts and the United States as a whole. By 2050 the minority population (including Asian-Americans) is expected to exceed whites.

The bad news is that these students of color are flocking into community colleges, not the selective four-year publics. This is significant because a bachelor’s degree is more and more the best entry to the middle class. The US Census Bureau consistently shows the higher the degree, the greater the annual salary. For example, in 2009 the average salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree was $55,700, compared with $42,000 for an associate degree and $33,800 for someone with only a high school diploma.

If, as Heffernan states, we are willing to deal with conflict and change, there are a number of opportunities to increase black and Hispanic public university enrollment and ultimately bachelor’s degree attainment:

1) The Commonwealth should increase funding to community colleges to ensure that more students of color complete their associate’s degree and are thus prepared to transfer to universities as juniors. There is a great disparity between the Commonwealth’s funding of public universities and that of community colleges. One could argue that community colleges with their open admissions policy require more funding per student rather than less.

2) Public universities should recruit community college students of color and support them with scholarships. Community college graduates come with two important strengths: first, they have already completed half of their undergraduate courses and, second, they have already proven themselves in college. A robust and dedicated focus on community college transfers will increase the number of university graduates, while placing renewed attention to community colleges as a path to the bachelor’s degree. In general, universities who are seeking to increase enrollment of students of color should go where the students are—at community colleges.


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