On March 13, 2023,
Thank you to you and your colleagues for this opportunity to provide commentary and help inform the development of the Fiscal Year 2024 operating budget. I appreciate the time and effort that you and your teams will spend over the next several months in bringing this work to completion.
This budget cycle marks my first as Massachusetts’ Commissioner of Higher Education. Since beginning this role last November, I have learned a great deal about the Commonwealth’s system of higher education and our public institutions. With 29 public and 82 private higher education institutions within the Commonwealth, Massachusetts educates over 630,000 undergraduate and graduate students annually. Next to health care and finance, higher education is one of the Commonwealth’s largest industries, employing over 135,000 faculty, staff, and administrators. It is clear why we are considered the Education State and why we are proud to be home to some of the best colleges and universities in the world. These institutions are the driving force behind our knowledge economy and our engaged citizenry. Their continued success is imperative for Massachusetts’s future economic and social prosperity.
While our Commonwealth is a model for its institutions of higher learning, we know that we still have work to do to make those institutions, including and especially the public institutions of higher education, accessible to all of our citizens, without those residents incurring a lifetime of debt. While that issue has been one that our individual campuses have been working towards, we know that there is more we can do. And with the revenues from the income tax surtax beginning in FY2024, we are presented with an opportunity to think about how we might approach this question in a strategic and thoughtful manner.
The Healey-Driscoll Administration’s FY24 budget recommendations will help make the Massachusetts system of public higher education one that is competitive, affordable, and equitable. House 1 calls for a historic investment in public higher education, which includes an infusion of more $360 million in new “Fair Share” funding. This proposal signals a deep commitment to increasing access and success for students enrolled in our institutions of higher education and ensuring that the system of public higher education can provide high quality and equitable learning opportunities for all learners of the Commonwealth.
The Massachusetts economy remains one that is significantly knowledge-based. Many of the jobs that drive the prosperity of this state are ones that require postsecondary credentials. However, employers are frequently challenged to find qualified employees in fields such as teaching, nursing, and information technology. There is consistent dialogue between public higher education institutions and the business community to ensure alignment between workforce needs and academic programs. Employers recognize that students attending our state universities, community colleges, and UMass campuses are most likely to stay in the Commonwealth after completing their programs and are therefore vital to addressing the shortage of qualified employees. H1 recognizes the challenges of access and success that too often prevent students from completing their degree or credential by making important investments in these areas.
The proposed expansion of financial aid and programmatic innovations put forward by the Healey-Driscoll Administration help improve higher education access for both currently enrolled students and those who are returning to the classroom after time away. The aim of the MassReconnect program, a new initiative for Massachusetts which has been included in this year’s budget, is to make community college free for students over 25 who do not yet have a college degree. This budget proposal also sets aside major new funding to create a reserve for the system that will allow the colleges and universities to implement a freeze in student fees. Coupled with a significant expansion in overall financial aid spending, H1 moves the Commonwealth forward in the effort to improve access to public higher education by addressing the issue of student costs.
Student success is a cornerstone of the Healey-Driscoll budget proposal. It is not enough to look at costs alone to make a measurable impact – students must have the services necessary to be successful once enrolled in college. The FY24 budget proposal also includes significant new resources to public institutions that will allow them to support their students more effectively through their educational experiences. Data show that student success is significantly improved through holistic student supports that address their needs. H1 includes new funding for wrap-around services for all students in the Massachusetts public higher education system in addition to increasing the appropriation for the current Community College SUCCESS Fund, as well as $4.5 million for mental health services at our public higher education institutions.
Although Massachusetts remains the state with the highest percentage of residents with higher education degrees, that attainment is not shared equally across all racial and ethnic groups, income levels, and differences in ability. To address this, we must make sure our public colleges and universities are places where historically marginalized students know they belong. By including new funding for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives at state universities and the University of Massachusetts, the Healey-Driscoll Administration is helping these schools become student-ready institutions.
In addition, by increasing funding for Early College and the Commonwealth’s Dual Enrollment Program, students, particularly those coming from districts whose graduates are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, will graduate from high school with college credits. This creates momentum for them to continue their studies and to complete their higher education degree in a shorter time with less cost to them.
In the end, our institutions form the backbone of our public higher education system. In this budget, our 15 community colleges, nine state universities, and the five University of Massachusetts campuses are given new funds to help them be successful for their students. H1 recommended an average 3% increase across the individual community college and state university line items, as well as additional resources to be distributed through state’s funding formulas. The Healey-Driscoll administration also provides targeted resources for diversity and inclusion programming, like grants for the University of Massachusetts aimed at improving equity.
H1 also includes significant new funding to address capital needs on our public college and university campuses. Deferred maintenance and a backlog of infrastructure issues have long been a barrier to our public institutions providing the quality education students need and deserve. Just as it is important to address the issue of affordability, so it is to ensure that the classrooms, labs, and facilities in which students are expected to learn are up to the task.
I could not be more pleased that the proposals laid out in this budget are in line with the work already undertaken by the Board of Higher Education. There is strong policy alignment between H1 and the Strategic Public Higher Education Financing Framework, the Strategic Plan for Racial Equity, and the Support Services for Student Success Framework. As you consider the appropriations for higher education put forth in this budget and as you work your way through the budget process, please know that I am committed to robust stakeholder engagement and partnership to determine the best and most effective way to operationalize the funding dedicated to higher education in Massachusetts.
I look forward to partnering with you over the coming months as you develop a final budget for FY 24 and to develop relationships with you for many years to come.