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Vision Project report outlines needs for more college graduates

Posted 10/31/14

Degrees of UrgencyAt a time of rising demand for skilled college graduates in the Commonwealth, the Department of Higher Education’s third annual Vision Project report shows progress being made to raise graduation rates and close achievement gaps among public college and university students in Massachusetts, but also projects a shortage of skilled graduates needed to meet the needs of employers in key industry sectors that fuel economic growth, based on an expected drop in the state’s high school population in the coming years.

“The Vision Project report provides state leaders with a road map that allows us to think and respond proactively to the issues in higher education we will face in the next decade,” said Secretary of Education Matthew Malone. "At the same time it allows us to celebrate achievements by our campuses and by the Patrick Administration. There are many points of progress contained in this report, and I am proud that our public colleges and universities share a vision for the future.”

“Degrees of Urgency: Why Massachusetts Needs More College Graduates Now,” was released Tuesday, Oct. 28 before a group of 275 business and civic leaders gathered at the Boston Foundation. The report outlines system and campus-level achievements aligned with the Vision Project goal of leading nationally among state systems of public higher education.

Among the recent gains:

  • One-third of Massachusetts campuses are now meeting or exceeding the Vision Project goal for improvement in six-year graduation/success rates, increases that are well above the national and leading states’ averages.
  • At the University of Massachusetts and state university campuses, the six-year graduation rate gap between White and Latino/a students has narrowed.
  • At community colleges, the rate of enrollment in remedial coursework among Latino/a students has declined, a sign that collaborative work with high schools to align curriculum and close gaps is working.
  • The focus on workforce planning in high-growth industry sectors is yielding results; as an example, the report cites a 34% increase in nurses with bachelor’s degrees (2010-2013), important because research shows that higher education levels result in improved patient outcomes.
  • Fitchburg State University has shortened the time to degree completion for students interested in law careers. The university is offering a three-year baccalaureate degree as part of a new partnership with the University of Massachusetts Law School. The program will allow qualifying students to earn their bachelor’s and law degrees in just six years, saving a year’s worth of undergraduate tuition and fees while shortening the time to complete two degrees.

Along with citing progress, the report draws attention to a major challenge facing the Commonwealth: declining enrollments at public colleges and universities at a time when the state’s need for more college-educated workers has never been greater.

The report forecasts that by 2020, the system that now educates 70% of high school students who remain in state to attend college will be under-producing needed graduates by a minimum of 55,000 to 65,000, the result of enrollment declines that stem from a drop in the state’s high school population.

Within six years, Massachusetts’ high school population will shrink by 9%, a shift from the previous decade which saw a 31% increase in the number of high school graduates. The prior growth helped fuel record enrollments at Massachusetts’ community colleges, state universities and UMass campuses, a boom which has now ended. This fall the public higher education system posted its first decline in enrollment in a decade.

“Today we put forth a major plan to address the state’s need for more college graduates,” said Richard M. Freeland, Commissioner of Higher Education. “This is vital work on behalf of the Commonwealth and we understand that we can only deliver the graduates Massachusetts needs if we are improving our overall academic performance, which campuses are striving to do, and if such efforts receive strong state support.”

At outlined by Commissioner Freeland at the Boston Foundation report release event, the “Big Three Completion Plan” to address the state’s need for more graduates focuses on 1) helping more students succeed in and complete college 2) redoubling efforts to close persistent achievement gaps that keep too many African American and Latino/a students from graduating, and 3) attracting and retaining students who are not being served by the system, including those who currently can’t afford to attend college, those who are choosing to attend college out of state, and adult students who need to finish their degrees.

Despite recent investments by the Patrick Administration, decades of insufficient funding to Massachusetts public higher education have resulted in the Commonwealth ranking no better than average (currently, 26th in the nation) in state support for its public colleges and universities. A report released Tuesday by the Commonwealth’s Higher Education Finance Commission recommended that the public campuses receive significant additional funding tied to performance improvement, and that such support also be linked to campus efforts to achieve greater operating efficiencies.

“The particular needs of this state, more than many other states, demand a first class system of public higher education,” said Charles F. Desmond, Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. “If we hope to reap the economic dividends that come from being an educational leader, Massachusetts must make academic excellence at its public colleges and universities an even higher priority than it is right now.”

“There is clear consensus, Massachusetts must have a national top tier public higher education system to compete in our 21st century economy,” said the Co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, Representative Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland.) “This means greater efficiency and collaboration on the part of our higher education institutions, and strategic investment on par with the states that lead the way in public higher education nationally. This effort will require support from every resident of our Commonwealth. We understand what must be done, and today we affirm the need to act.”

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