We must cherish public higher education

Published: 5/25/2021 1:16:15 PM In words unchanged since 1780, the education clause of our state’s Constitution reads that “[i]t sha...



Published: 5/25/2021 1:16:15 PM

In words unchanged since 1780, the education clause of our state’s Constitution reads that “[i]t shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish… the public schools and grammar schools in the towns.”

Is the Legislature living up to this constitutional mandate? Not yet.

Per-student state funding for public higher education fell 31% from 2001 through 2019, driving up tuition and fees and mounting student debt.

The CHERISH Act (S.824 and H.1325 — An Act to commit to higher education the resources to ensure a strong and healthy public higher education system), which I filed with Reps. Sean Garballey and Paul Mark, draws its inspiration from our constitutional obligation. Co-sponsored by upward of 90 House and Senate colleagues, the bill would require the commonwealth to fund public higher education at no less than the 2001 per-student funding level, adjusted for inflation. The legislation freezes tuition and fees, as a projected $500 million funding increase phases in over five years.

What are the costs of inaction?

Pre-pandemic census data showed that only 18% of Latinx and one quarter of Black adults had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 45% of white adults. Only 16% of students in the UMass system came from families in the bottom 40% of the national income distribution.

Then last fall, undergraduate student enrollment across the Massachusetts public higher education system dropped roughly 7%, the largest single-year decrease since data collection began. The greatest decrease was at the community college level. From fall 2020 to fall 2019, enrollment at community colleges among Black undergraduates declined 15.8%. Among Latinx undergraduates it declined 21.1%, and among white undergraduates it declined 9.3%. 

Even more concerning is the decline in students beginning their education at our community colleges. Here again, there are chasms among racial and ethnic lines. Last fall, community college enrollment of Black first-time first-years declined 32.6%. Latinx first-time first-years declined 25.4% and white first-time first-years declined 18.2%.

We must wrestle with the fact that a 2018 report from the New England Board of Higher Education found that “Massachusetts has the fastest rising cost of public higher education in the nation.” We can see the impact of these price increases reflected in student debt loads. From 2004 to 2016, the average debt of graduates from public universities in Massachusetts has grown faster than in all but one other state. The public higher education students who are able to enter the Massachusetts system and graduate are now finishing their degree with over $22,000 in outstanding student loans on average. The debt these college graduates carry with them is a massive weight on their futures and on our commonwealth’s economy.

We can help reverse these trends by passing the CHERISH Act and ushering in an era of long-lasting economic and social benefits. Bolstered by a constitutional mandate, years worth of data, and billions of dollars coming into Massachusetts from the federal government, the time has come.

We know that graduates of public institutions are far more likely to live and work in Massachusetts after graduation compared to graduates of private institutions. We know that the benefits of an affordable public higher education cascade into our communities for decades afterwards in the form of increased employment, higher salaries, higher tax revenue, and a reduction in the need for public assistance. We know that well-funded public universities and colleges — especially community colleges — have the potential to provide a critical pipeline for training and retraining students for the jobs essential to the state’s economic recovery and 21st century growth. 

But the CHERISH Act is about more than just dollars and cents. It’s about equitable access to health and well-being. Studies show that the percentage of people who report being “happy about life” is five points higher for college graduates than for those with a high school diploma. Compared to high school graduates, college graduates have higher job satisfaction, and almost 50% of college graduates report being in very good health compared to only 30% of high school graduates. 

Ensuring access to education is a matter of equity and justice. Affordable public higher education, made possible by the CHERISH Act, offers us a way to build back better, more equitably after COVID by addressing a problem which existed long before the pandemic hit our commonwealth.

In the Connecticut River Valley, this issue is not in the abstract. We are home to Springfield Technical Community College, Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College, as well as Westfield State University and the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Many of the students who attend these institutions are from our wider community and will make their home here after graduating. They deserve equitable access to education. Many of the faculty and staff are from our community. They deserve fair pay and benefits and adequate working conditions.

And we, in turn, will all reap the profound economic and social benefits from investing in a more fairly-funded, high-functioning public higher education sector.

The legislation had a hearing last week in the Joint Committee on Higher Education and the work to build support for this transformation is churning away. If you want to add your voice to support increased state funding for public higher education, you can use the Dear Jo portal on my website: http://bit.ly/CherishHigherEd.

Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.



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