Can you give us a clear snapshot of your focus areas for higher education, at this point in your tenure?
Peyser: Number one: College access and success, which includes students being ready for college-level work.
Can you give us an example of budget or system-level initiatives that you think will support access and success?
Peyser: Dual enrollment and Vision Project Performance Incentive Grants would be two examples. The Governor’s budget proposes doubling our investment in dual enrollment from $1 million to $2 million. What we’re trying to do is not simply increase the number of students taking advantage of the existing dual enrollment program but rather focus those additional resources on strengthening early college programs, where our public colleges work with cohorts of students, rather than individual students, especially in the STEM fields. We want to build or expand on existing relationships with high schools, and in particular, focus on those students who are under-represented in college. We are still working out the details of that expansion initiative, so stay tuned.
Similarly, the performance management grants available to our public colleges and universities are supporting system-building initiatives, like the creation of common course offerings to ensure that students can transfer credits earned at one public college to any other college in the system.
Any other priorities you’d like to touch upon?
Affordability. One of major reasons students don’t finish college is because of money. This is a knotty problem, because the cost of higher education—in both public and private schools here in Massachusetts and nationally—seems to be on conveyor belt that’s moving higher and faster than inflation. No one has yet figured out how to change the trajectory or bend the curve.
So even though we need to keep working on efficiency measures that produce real savings, it’s clear we need to add a new focus on creating alternative pathways through college that are at a significantly lower cost. I’m very encouraged by the work that the campuses and the Department of Higher Education have been doing on a more affordable four-year degree option and I expect we’ll have an announcement on that new program soon.
And there are other approaches like three-year degrees, or more aggressive use of online competency-based programs that can be delivered at much lower costs, approaches that not only reduce the overall cost of completing a degree, but also make it possible for students to do it faster and on a flexible schedule that meets their unique needs.
But many educators have expressed concern that these competency-based models may be creating a two-tiered higher education system where those who can afford it still have the option of a bricks-and-mortar on-campus experience, while poorer students may be relegated this cheaper, online path.
A four-year residential experience is not for everyone, regardless their economic circumstances. Moreover, we simply cannot afford to address the college access challenge through construction of new buildings. The fact is we have billions of dollars in deferred maintenance for the buildings we already have. Pretending that we can address the challenge of college access and affordability by expanding our bricks and mortar campuses is simply an expensive mirage, which would likely have the effect of putting a college degree even further out-of-reach for working class students. If we are going to get more people access to higher education and get them the credentials and skills they need to be successful, we are going to have to come up with alternative ways of doing that. Online education is not a silver bullet, but it is an increasingly promising path for some students – and not just because it’s cheap. And frankly, the world is moving in this direction. Massachusetts will be left behind if we don’t move with it.
You are very focused on public higher education’s role in serving different regions of the state. Talk about what that means.
My observation is that communication and collaboration happens quite a bit on an ad hoc or programmatic basis, but not systemic. As a result, we are not adding as much value as we are capable of and we are wasting resources. At the same time, we are making it harder for students to navigate their own unique paths through our higher education and workforce development system. Deepening the regional integration of our college campuses and strengthening their connections to K-12 and local employers is a top priority of the Governor’s Workforce Skills Cabinet.
What do you mean? Many campuses would argue that they have great relationships with K-12 schools and local businesses.
True, but what’s frustrating is that if you go to any college, they will tell you about all of their partnerships with K-12 and employers. Then if you go to the surrounding schools and the employers and ask them about their relationships with the local community college or state university, too often you get blank stares. That says two things to me:
First, a lot of the partnerships are transactional or episodic, without much buy-in or engagement at the institutional level. That means that these relationships often lack a real strategic purpose and therefore miss the opportunity to add greater value.
Second, in any given region, you might have three or four different colleges, each with their own separate relationships with the same businesses or industry sectors. This piecemeal approach can be confusing to employers and wasteful to the colleges. One of the things Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) and Holyoke Community College (HCC) are doing through their Training and Workforce Options program is to say, we are serving the same region so let’s work together to develop employer partnerships as a team. That means that if there’s a business in the hospitality industry you direct them to HCC’s culinary arts program, and if you have a partnership with an advanced manufacturing firm, you point them toward STCC. What STCC and HCC are doing demonstrates how campuses can merge their resources in a way that allows us to maximize the value of the assets we have, increase the number of strategic partnerships, and simplify the network of relationships between higher education and employers.
Isn’t the current structure of higher ed in Massachusetts a barrier to the kind of regionalization you envision?
The highly decentralized structure we have means we need to place a premium on communication, collaboration, and integration. Is it a barrier? It doesn’t make it easy, but we hope that it provides the opportunity to have the best of both worlds: day-to-day decision-making that is close to the ground and regional or statewide coordination to leverage the distinctive strengths of each campus. Given the proximity of these institutions to one another, and the fact we are a pretty small state anyway, it is actually quite possible for us to be networked tightly, especially within regions.
Thinking regionally also relates to the capital budget. One of challenges that I have in my role as an advisor to the Governor with respect to the capital budget is being able to rank order campus proposals for capital funding. Unfortunately, we have many more construction proposals than we have capital funds to support them, so we have to make some tough choices in the near term and probably over the next several years, as well. I am hopeful that this constraint will encourage and enable the campuses within the various regions of the Commonwealth to work more closely together to align and integrate their strategic plans in order to make the best use of the Commonwealth’s limited resources.
Are you suggesting that as the process of reviewing these projects goes forth, taking a regional approach is something the campuses are or will be encouraged to do?
The new regional planning process that is being launched as we speak is intended to be bottom up. Starting in this fiscal year, we are providing resources and support for the campuses to get together in each region to look at each other’s strategic plans and to think about their programs and priorities in order to align and integrate them more effectively. Where it makes sense these plans might bring pieces together or enable campuses to divide and conquer to make sure they are not duplicating efforts. To the extent they are able to maximize the use of existing resources, we might be able to avoid investing in bricks and mortar when we don’t have to. Those regions that put forward the most compelling and coherent plans that take maximum advantage of their collective assets will certainly have a leg up when it comes to allocating the capital budget in the future.