March 29, 2017 Joint Ways & Means FY18 Budget Hearing
Chair Kulik, Chair McGee, and distinguished members of both the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means:
Thank you for the invitation to testify today. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about our goals for improving access, affordability and college completion at the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges and nine state universities and how those goals are supported in this budget. As always, I welcome your questions. I also want to signal my deep gratitude for the support we have received from the Massachusetts legislature, through good years and lean years.
That support has been steadfast even in the face of mounting fiscal challenges. No one at the Department of Higher Education is oblivious to the realities facing the state. We know of the uncertainties facing the Commonwealth, particularly with regard to federal spending and fluctuating state revenue growth. We know that health care costs in particular continue to spiral, and we all share a desire to preserve affordable care for all our residents.
That said, I believe the health and wellness of our economy is directly tied to the choices we make about funding education – more so, perhaps, than in other states.
Our public campuses educate more than half of the state’s undergraduates. The vast majority of our students – nine of every ten, to be exact – remain in Massachusetts a year after they graduate. This means that the public campuses are continuing to play an essential role in educating the state’s future workforce. Our institutions are fully focused on the need to produce greater numbers of college graduates with the skills needed to replace the estimated 600,000 Baby Boomers who will retire in the next ten years. We are working collectively – and creatively to stretch state dollars as we look for ways to graduate more students in less time. We are focused on their academic pathways, strengthening the ties from high school classrooms to college, and also smoothing the transfer from community college to four-year institutions. And for this reason, we are happy to come here annually to support the institutions and their ability to carry out this important work. We also appreciate this committee’s support of our administrative capacity to oversee and coordinate this work on behalf of the Commonwealth. In the last year:
At the same time, we are becoming increasingly mindful of the non-academic barriers to student success. From the Berkshires to Boston, campuses are reporting an uptick in economic insecurity among students resulting in increased levels of hunger and homelessness. Food and housing insecurity, along with child care and transportation, directly impact growing numbers of low-income, non-traditional students at our public campuses. Campus staff are responding heroically, and should be applauded for working to address issues outside of the classroom that have a major impact on student learning.
The mission of public higher education is to provide post-secondary access and opportunity to every Massachusetts resident who is willing to work hard, regardless of their economic status or cultural background. Investments in our public campuses change lives and in doing so, they change communities. But changing demographics coupled with the financial pressures facing students make clear that we must continue to build on recent investments in higher education. Without them, I would be concerned about Massachusetts ability to maintain its robust business confidence and global competitive advantages. The benefits derived from having a highly educated workforce extend to all of our citizens.
I’d now like to turn to the Board of Higher Education’s top priorities for the coming fiscal year as reflected in the Governor’s House 1 spending plan.
First, we are seeking a modest increase in individual campus appropriations to be distributed through the performance-based funding formula for each segment. Second, we are pleased to see that the Governor’s Supplemental Budget request to fund collective bargaining commitments has been enacted by both branches. This continues to be one of the largest cost-drivers for public higher education; negotiated contracts that remain unfunded are largely absorbed by students in the form of increased fees. The approval of this supplemental budget will help ensure that students are not adversely affected.
As noted in the opening of my remarks, we are seeing signs of economic distress among our students, especially at our community colleges. Increasingly, we hear reports of students who must choose between buying textbooks and meals, or deciding to live on the floor of a friend’s dorm room rather than signing up for housing, in a bid to save money. While we can’t solve every problem facing every student, we can invest in scholarship dollars that help ease students’ financial burdens and raises the likelihood that they will be able to finish their degrees and move into the workforce where their skills are needed. As economic conditions and state revenues permit, this important program should be prioritized as the Commonwealth’s support for students.
We are seeking continued funding for this performance-based fund, a vital tool for the DHE to incentivize the public campuses to meet system-wide goals. Each competitively-awarded grant allows individual campuses and campus consortia to pursue innovative strategies to improve college access and completion rates, and to maximize efficiencies. The most recent grants are being used to fund early college proposals, to continue our overhaul of remedial or developmental education programs, and to expand the size of a promising pilot, 100 Males to College. This last program allows the public campuses to team with their local school districts to offer support to cohorts of African American and Latino students who may have had little knowledge about higher education. In the pilot program in Springfield, all the young men enrolled in the program are graduating from high school and 95% have enrolled in college. Framingham has also seen impressive results in its first year. Performance Incentive Fund grants will allow two more communities – Brockton and Worcester – to establish 100 Males to College programs. Again, this is a wise programmatic investment of taxpayer dollars because we will be expanding a model with a proven track record, rather than “reinventing the wheel” with new stand-alone projects. Our goal is further program expansion into other Gateway Cities.
We are asking for an additional $1 million to fund college and career pathways, including existing programs such as STEM Starter Academy, Dual Enrollment, Nursing and Allied Health, and Bridges to College. In addition to these highly successful initiatives, we will also be working, along with the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education and the Executive Office of Education to move Massachusetts towards the forefront of designing Early College High Schools. Early college high schools combine the traditional high school experience with the opportunity for entire classes of students to earn transferrable college credits. This is a smart investment for taxpayers. Not only do we improve access and lower the cost of a college degree; by giving students early exposure to college coursework, we will also lower the costs of remediation. One consultant’s report pegged the cost of remedial education at somewhere between $20 and $57 million annually. We believe that the early college model embraced by the Boards of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Higher Education will be much more far-reaching than the current, limited dual enrollment program, which served 2400 individual students a year.
A few words about the STEM Starter Academy: championed by House Speaker DeLeo. These programs continue to operate at each of the 15 community colleges and have had a demonstrable impact on students’ desire to pursue STEM education and careers. To date, the program has served 17,000 students, 49% of whom have gone on to earn degrees in STEM fields. There is a higher level of student diversity among STEM Starter Academy students, and a higher percentage of students enrolled full-time, which correlates with higher graduation rates. This program has served as a foundational piece of a broader strategy and coordinated approach to expose students to STEM courses and experiences and support them in higher education opportunities and the college experience at an earlier point in their lives.
In conclusion, let me again acknowledge the exceedingly tight budget constraints facing this Committee. In asking for your continued support of public higher education, I have focused programmatic investments that we know have a proven track record. I welcome any questions that you may have, and appreciate the opportunity to present this testimony.