On March 17, 2022,
To the chairs and members of the House and Senate committees on Ways and Means, thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony on the FY 2023 budget. As some of you may know, this will be the last time I address these committees in my role as Massachusetts' higher education commissioner, as I anticipate stepping down from this position in July. In my more than forty years in higher education, my time as Commissioner has been the most challenging and rewarding of my career. It has been an honor to serve the Commonwealth, its students, faculty, staff, and higher education institutions.
Concerning the challenges, I know that you are all too familiar with the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic. I am proud of how the higher education system in Massachusetts transformed itself to meet the challenge over the past two years. Still, the pandemic has also laid bare aspects of our higher education system where we need to redouble our efforts.
In December 2018, the Board of Higher Education made equity its top policy priority for the Massachusetts public higher education system. It recognized the persistent disparities in higher education access and attainment for historically marginalized groups. Unfortunately, the pandemic only exacerbated these gaps among Black, Latinx, and Asian/Pacific Islanders (AAPI) students, demographic groups that, by design, have historically been excluded from our higher education system. Our Equity Agenda directly addresses these gaps by fostering an inclusive campus environment where we acknowledge and seek to engage people of color by implementing equity-minded evidence-based solutions.
The equity work that we are undertaking in Massachusetts has not gone unnoticed. Last year, our Department was recognized nationally by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association as the organization's exceptional state agency. I am proud that other states acknowledge the hard work of the more than 60 individuals working at DHE.
I'll offer my testimony on the FY23 budget with the Equity Agenda goals in mind.
Ensuring that financial aid meaningfully addresses college affordability remains an integral part of the Department's Equity Agenda. The Commonwealth’s recent budgets built upon prior investments in state financial aid to enable the Department to expand its MassGrant Plus program from the Community Colleges to the State Universities. The Governor’s FY23 budget submission includes annualized funding to continue Mass Grant Plus for both the Community Colleges and State Universities and funding to expand the program to eligible students at the University of Massachusetts.
The FY23 budget recommendation represents the third consecutive year of a steadily increasing commitment to meeting any remaining unmet financial need for tuition and fees after accounting for all other state and federal grant aid and expected family contribution.
In addition to MassGrant Plus, the budget includes full funding for the Foster Care and Adopted Tuition and Fee Waiver and the Foster Grant programs. Both programs assist students in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF). This continued commitment supports the ongoing work of DCF to strengthen our child welfare system by creating an affordable pathway through public higher education.
Access to affordable public higher education is necessary but does not fully address some of the most complex and persistent challenges our minoritized students face completing their degrees. We are pleased that the FY23 budget commits to student support and success initiatives through its Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services (SUCCESS) grants to community colleges. This program will fund critical academic support for our most vulnerable students, often low-income, first-generation, and from minoritized groups.
Administered jointly by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Higher Education, Early College is one of the signature programs prioritizing equitable access and opportunity for underserved and underrepresented students. Early College features a partnership between local school districts and postsecondary institutions that creates the foundation for structured pathways to college participation, completion, and career success. National research shows a high correlation between Early College participation and higher postsecondary enrollment among first-generation, low-income, and historically underserved students.
This academic year Massachusetts expects to enroll approximately 5000 students in Early College programs. With the Governor's investment of an additional $7.3M in the FY23 budget, we hope to expand the opportunity to take college courses to over 7,000 high school students across the state in the next academic year. Your continued support for our Early College program ensures that our participating colleges can offer many of our Black and Latinx students a clear educational path beyond high school.
This program remains one of the most important tools we have at the DHE to incentivize public colleges and universities to advance statewide goals and bring to scale the best and most promising practices across the public higher education system. We administer the Higher Education Innovation Fund grant program from this line item, which awards funding competitively to individual campuses and campus consortia to pursue innovative strategies and proven practices that reduce costs and support student success.
This year our focus is aligned squarely with our Equity Agenda, providing incentive funding for projects promoting racial justice in postsecondary outcomes. In addition to directly supporting 3 campus work on our Equity Agenda, this program also supports initiatives around open educational resources, online and hybrid learning, competency-based education, and prior learning assessments and credits.
Additionally, it is also significant that this appropriation supports the Department's statutory responsibility "to promote accountability for effective management and stewardship of public funds and to achieve and demonstrate measurable educational outcomes." We achieve this through the ongoing design and development of our Performance Measurement and Reporting System (PMRS). 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 all our system stakeholders as this important accountability work moves forward.
In addition to the Department of Higher Education's budget, the Governor's proposal includes funding for our colleges and state universities, including performance-based increases in funding. This direct funding is an essential recognition of the needed support as we continue to work through the pandemic and, with your help, emerge from this crisis more robust than before. We are pleased that the Governor’s budget included a commitment to fund the state-supported cost of the collective bargaining agreements.
In closing, I wish to thank you and your colleagues for supporting public higher education, and I remain fundamentally optimistic about the Equity Agenda. I hope that with your help, the Department will continue to move forward with our Equity work to 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.