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Addressing the Educational Divide

January 27, 2016 Board of Higher Education Meeting

I want to highlight a serious issue we are presently grappling with in this country: what is known as the “educational divide,” or the differences experienced by those with a postsecondary degree and those without one. Our students understand the importance of earning these degrees, and many of them are also aware of the public benefits that flow from a highly educated citizenry and workforce. At campus visits this year I have faced the following question from students: “If the state benefits from us earning degrees, why don’t our colleges get more funding?” The answer I provide to such questions comes in the form of a history lesson.

The democratization of higher education that coincided with the GI Bill in 1943 and the advent of new public institutions and systems of public institutions were extremely successful. Higher education was identified as a “public good” with concrete societal benefits, not just the key to individual advancement. More citizens vied for postsecondary degrees than ever before, with generous support from federal and state government. Not only did access to higher education increase, but evidence suggests that earnings of those individuals with a postsecondary degree significantly outpaced earnings of individuals with only high school credentials.

As postwar economic growth gave way to deindustrialization and globalization in the 1980s and 1990s, and as government scaled back funding for financial aid programs that helped low-income students afford college, the educational divide began to grow dramatically. It became increasingly clear that a strong back was no longer a guarantee to a middle class income. Any job that was repetitious in nature and required limited job skills had the potential to be automated or outsourced globally. The skill-based impact of technological changes that were occurring clearly favoredthe more educated. The education gap was beginning to exacerbate the nation’s income inequality in conjunction with the expansion of the knowledge-based economy.

Today, the education divide is fueling a level of distress in those segments of the population that have been left behind. The Commonwealth has not been immune to these macro trends; in some respect, we have been at the forefront of them. We have the most educated population in the nation, with over 50 percent of the labor force holding a postsecondary degree. The requirements of our knowledge-based economy are such that we need even more workers with baccalaureate degrees or higher. All available economic data point to this reality. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 80% of Massachusetts jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, will require a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2020.

To mitigate this distress, we need to graduate more students with degrees from our public institutions, which now educate more than half of the state’s undergraduates. This in turn will require us to work more closely with our partners in K–12 to create college-ready cohorts of students. We need to attract new student populations, such as African American and Latino males, who are graduating from high school in higher numbers but then too often faltering when they arrive at college. The educational and income divides result in too many young men being forced to give up the option of going to school full-time to earn degrees and advance to better-paying careers, leaning instead on accessible but low-wage jobs to support their families.

The Board of Higher Education is, through its actions, doing the spade work to close the educational divide. At its meeting last week, the BHE voted to continue the important work of revising developmental (remedial) education which traps too many students in a cycle of costly failure. The Board supported student efforts to earn four-year degrees by voting to raise the MassTransfer tuition waiver from 33% to 100%. Our work to create a unified system of transfer, though perhaps not characterized as glamorous, translates into direct time-and-money savings for the students we serve.

Whether or not state systems of higher education will ever again see the robust investments of the post-War era remains to be seen. In Massachusetts the competition for constrained state resources is fierce, and the educational divides are real. At Bunker Hill Community College last week, I met with a homeless student who is advancing in her studies even as she struggles to find a place to bed down for the night. It pains me to see any student facing this degree of difficulty at one of our public institutions. But I was struck by her resilience. If this young woman can catapult over the barriers she faces, so can we.

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