On March 16, 2021, Commissioner Santiago testified before the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means about equity-minded budget priorities—against the backdrop of FY21 fiscal relief from the Commonwealth and federal government and long-term, strategic planning for higher ed finance
At the Legislature’s annual budget hearing on education and local aid, Commissioner Santiago noted the tremendous disruption caused or exacerbated by the pandemic on our society, our economy, and our system of higher education. In particular, he cited its disproportionate impacts on students of color and low-income students, underscoring the critical importance of the Department’s Equity Agenda which is aimed at transforming policies and practices to better serve Black and Latinx students at our public colleges and universities—students who have yet to be served equitably. Given that a budget is an expression of needs, priorities and values, the Commissioner emphasized in his remarks that the work of achieving racial equity in Massachusetts public higher education will require a heightened, ongoing effort to address inequities in the allocation of resources to support students throughout their higher education journey, from enrollment to completion.
To the Chairs and members of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means Committees, thank you for the invitation to testify on the FY22 budget. Last year at this time, I had just given my testimony to you to help inform your development of the FY21 budget. Almost immediately afterward, we were thrust into a situation that required all of us to adapt to our new reality. The Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on our society and economy, and much remains uncertain about its long-term effects. In the higher education sector, colleges and universities across the country have experienced historic declines in enrollment, previously unanticipated revenue losses, and higher costs stemming from pandemic mitigation and response efforts. To their credit, leaders in our public higher education system have been innovative and proactive in implementing adaptive measures to grapple with the challenges brought on by the virus. They have ensured students, faculty, and staff's safety and secured their institutions' current and future financial viability. Federal funding has helped close part of the financial gap created or exacerbated by the pandemic to date, and more funding is anticipated from the American Rescue Plan Act. These one-time solutions are critical to supporting our system of higher education through this crisis. In the long term, we are committed to ensuring that the post-pandemic public higher education system will continue to be a reliable, accessible, and affordable pathway for our students and an invaluable source of knowledge and skills to grow our economy.
While there continues to be uncertainty about the virus and its disruptive and lasting effects, there is widespread acknowledgment of the disproportionate economic impacts of the pandemic on students of color and low-income students. Through the Department’s Equity Agenda, we have expressed our firm commitment to ensuring greater opportunities for success for Black and Latinx students. That commitment to racial equity is more critical now than ever before. The work of achieving racial equity in Massachusetts public higher education will require a heightened, ongoing effort to address inequities in students' resources. These resources are particularly critical as students seek to enroll in, persist through, and graduate from the Commonwealth's public higher education institutions, realizing their full potential and becoming agents in a more just and thriving society. With that in mind, I would like to highlight the funding recommendations in the Governor’s FY22 budget proposal that will help us continue to make progress in promoting equitable access and opportunity and increasing affordability and success for all students.
Affordability is a key aspect in addressing disparities in college participation and achieving racial equity. As Secretary Peyser highlighted in his remarks, the Governor’s budget continues to support investments in state financial aid that have enabled us to bring to scale the MassGrant Plus program. With your support, MassGrant plus continues to provide increased financial assistance for degree-seeking community college students. We have targeted those students who file a FAFSA and have remaining unmet financial need for tuition and fees after accounting for all other state and federal grant aid and expected family contribution. The Governor’s budget includes annualized funding for the successful MassGrant Plus program, enabling us to continue expanding the program to the State Universities. In addition to continuing this commitment, we are taking a more comprehensive approach to support student progress and completion by combining affordability strategies with student support and success initiatives. The combination of affordability and support strategies is intended to help students overcome cost-prohibitive barriers and other obstacles that can result in costly and frustrating delays or detours as they work toward completing their education. The budget also includes full funding for the Foster Care Adopted Tuition and Fee Waiver and the Foster Care Grant programs. These two financial aid programs were created many years ago to help families afford the post-secondary education costs for children and youth who have been in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF). This essential financial commitment supports the ongoing work by the DCF to strengthen our child welfare system and creates ladders of opportunity for the young people in their care.
Administered jointly by the Department of Early and Secondary Education and the Department of Higher Education, Early College is one of the signature programs that prioritize equitable access and opportunity for Students of Color. Early College features a partnership between local school districts and post-secondary institutions that creates the foundations for structured pathways to college participation, completion, and career success. National research shows a high correlation between Early College participation and higher post-secondary enrollment among first-generation, low-income, and historically underserved students. Massachusetts currently has 23 officially designated Early College programs, involving 19 IHEs and 35 high schools, and is expected to serve approximately 4,000 students by next year. The Governor's budget includes an investment of $3.5 M in the financial aid line item to provide the necessary resources to ensure that the program remains cost-free to high school students. We urge your continued support for this program, enabling our participating colleges to keep their doors open to aspiring young students who, through programs such as Early College, can better envision the possibilities for themselves and their future beyond high school.
This program is one of the essential tools we have at the DHE to incentivize public colleges and universities to advance statewide goals and scale best and promising practices across the public higher education system to advance the Equity Agenda. From this line item, we administer the Higher Education Innovation Fund grant program, which awards funding competitively to individual institutions and campus consortia to pursue innovative strategies and proven practices that reduce costs and support student success. Examples include expandingthe use of open educational resources, online and hybrid learning, competency-based education, and prior learning assessments and credits. Funds have also provided essential support to campuses to improve transfer advising and expand support services to students. This year our focus is aligned squarely with our Equity Agenda, providing incentive funding for projects to promote racial justice in post-secondary outcomes.
Additionally, it bears noting that this line item also supports our statutory responsibility “to promote accountability for effective management and stewardship of public funds and to achieve and demonstrate measurable educational outcomes." We are accomplishing this through the ongoing design and development of our Performance Measurement and Reporting System. This system tracks key performance indicators in college access and affordability; student success and completion; workforce alignment and outcomes; and fiscal stewardship.
We look forward to sharing this information with you and with all our system stakeholders as this important accountability work moves forward.
Before closing, I would like to note that in addition to the Department of Higher Education’s budget, the Governor’s proposal includes level funding for the community colleges and state universities for FY22. These are critical commitments during a time of fiscal uncertainty and will help ensure the state's maintenance of effort needed for continued eligibility for federal relief funding as we continue to work through the pandemic and emerge from this with your help, stronger than before.
In closing my remarks, I wish to thank you and your colleagues for supporting public higher education. While each of the three segments of our system differs in terms of their purpose and their many challenges, my team and I are eager to move forward with them and with you on our Equity Agenda and build upon successful strategies that focus resources and efforts on promoting racial equity, achievement, and social and economic mobility. The beneficiaries of this focused work will be the students, their communities, and our Commonwealth.
I welcome any questions that you may have, and I appreciate the opportunity to present this testimony.
Just a few days before the budget hearing, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which will provide much anticipated and needed fiscal relief for colleges and universities and students, as well as local and state governments whose leaders have been planning for the possibility of substantially reduced tax revenues. Nearly $40 billion in additional federal funding will be allocated directly for higher education institutions throughout the country. For Massachusetts public institutions, more than $400 million in supplemental funding from the ARP is expected to be allocated for pandemic-related economic relief, and at least half of those funds will be slated for direct financial supports for students.
Also included in the ARP is a provision that requires a “maintenance of effort” to ensure that these additional federal supports are not used to replace or supplant local and state commitments for public education. For Massachusetts, this provision reinforces the substantial budget commitments by the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Baker to public colleges and universities and critically important programs administered by DHE, including financial aid, student supports, and Early College—all of which are funded at historic highs in FY21. The Commissioner cited the most recent SHEEO Grapevine report at the Ways and Means budget hearing, noting that Massachusetts was one of just a few states to have increased public funding for higher education during the past year.
All of this is good news for what has been one of the most challenging years in recent memory. Yet the persistent effects of the pandemic, combined with the cumulative impact of systemic inequities, ongoing demographic shifts, structural budget deficits, and evolving workforce needs, call for long-term, data-informed, equitable, strategic, and sustainable solutions for resourcing public higher education. The most recent meeting of the BHE’s Fiscal Affairs and Administrative Policy (FAAP) Committee meeting featured a robust discussion about these issues and public higher education finance in general, including a reference to the Board’s commitment in its budget narrative over a year ago to engage in a comprehensive effort to implement both innovative and evidence-based strategies that will focus resources and efforts on promoting racial equity, achievement, and social and economic mobility for all our students. After all the collective work to adapt and persevere through this challenging time, it was a timely reminder of the important and inevitable work ahead if we are to achieve our aspiration to build a just and equitable system of higher education with a strong fiscal foundation to serve a Commonwealth and society that shares and reinforces those values.
The Legislature will release their budget proposals, with the House Ways & Means version expected in mid-April and the Senate Ways & Means version expected in mid-May.