We must cherish public higher education
Published: 05/25/2021 13:16:15
In words unchanged since 1780, the education clause of our State Constitution reads: “[i]It will be the duty of the legislatures and the magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish… the public schools and the high schools of the cities.
Does the Legislative Assembly respect this constitutional mandate? Not yet.
Public funding per student of public higher education fell by 31% from 2001 to 2019, pushing up tuition and tuition fees and student debt.
The CHERISH Act (S.824 and H.1325 – An Act to Commit to Higher Education the Resources Needed to Ensure a Strong and Healthy Public Higher Education System), which I filed with Representatives Sean Garballey and Paul Mark, is inspired by our constitutional obligation. Co-sponsored by more than 90 colleagues in the House and Senate, the bill would require the Commonwealth to fund public higher education at at least the 2001 per student funding level, adjusted for inflation. The law freezes tuition and fees as a planned funding increase of $ 500 million is phased over five years.
What are the costs of inaction?
Pre-pandemic census data showed that only 18% of Latinxes and a 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 in Massachusetts’ public higher education system fell about 7%, the largest drop in a single year since data collection began. The largest decline was recorded at the community college level. From fall 2020 to fall 2019, community college enrollments among black undergraduates declined 15.8%. Among Latinx undergraduates, it declined 21.1%, and among white undergraduates, it declined 9.3%.
Even more disturbing is the decline of students start their studies in our community colleges. Again, there are gulfs between racial and ethnic lineages. Last fall, black community college enrollments for the first time in first year fell 32.6%. The first years of Latinx for the first time decreased by 25.4% and the first year for whites by 18.2%.
We have to struggle with the fact that a New England Board of Higher Education Report 2018 found that “Massachusetts has the fastest growing cost of public higher education in the country.” We can see the impact of these price increases reflected on student debt. From 2004 to 2016, the average debt of graduates Massachusetts public universities grew faster than in all other states except one. Public higher education students who can enter the Massachusetts system and graduate now complete their degree with over $ 22,000 in outstanding student loans on average. The debt these college graduates carry with them weighs heavily on their future and the economy of our Commonwealth.
We can help reverse these trends by passing the CHERISH Act and ushering in an era of lasting economic and social benefits. Backed by a constitutional mandate, years of data and billions of dollars from the federal government in Massachusetts, the time is right.
We know that graduates of public institutions are much more likely to live and work in Massachusetts after graduation compared to graduates of private institutions. We know the advantages of an affordable price public higher education cascaded through our communities for decades after in the form of increased employment, higher wages, higher tax revenues and reduced need for public assistance. We know that well-funded public universities and colleges – especially community colleges – have potential to deliver a critical pipeline for the training and retraining of students for jobs essential to the state’s economic recovery and 21st century growth.
But the CHERISH Law is more than dollars and cents. It is about equitable access to health and well-being. Studies show that the percentage of people who report being “happy in life” is five points higher for college graduates than for those with a high school diploma. Compared to high school graduates, college graduates are more satisfied at work and nearly 50% of college graduates say they are in very good health, compared to only 30% of high school graduates.
Guaranteeing 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 that existed long before the pandemic hit our Commonwealth.
In the Connecticut River Valley, this question 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 at Amherst. Many of the students who attend these institutions are from our wider community and will reside there after graduation. They deserve equitable access to education. Many teachers and staff come from our community. They deserve fair compensation and benefits, and adequate working conditions.
And, in turn, we will reap all the deep economic and social benefits of investing in a more equitable and efficient public higher education sector.
The bill had a hearing last week in the Joint Higher Education Commission, and work to build support for this transformation is waning. If you want to add your voice to support increasing public 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 towns and villages in the District of Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester in the Massachusetts Legislature.