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 FY21 budget. We at the Department of Higher Education are committed to expanding access and opportunity for all students, close opportunity gaps, improve college completion rates, and increase the affordability and value of post-secondary education so that more students are able to enter the Commonwealth’s high-skilled workforce and participate fully in our economy and our society. Along with our campus leaders, we look forward to working with you and your colleagues in the House and Senate to build a thriving, cohesive, and sustainable system of public higher education in the Commonwealth that can deliver on these goals.
Over a year ago, the Board of Higher Education declared its commitment to the Equity Agenda as the top statewide policy imperative for public higher education. While Massachusetts leads the nation in terms of overall higher education attainment among adults, there are stark disparities in college participation rates and degree attainment between white students and students of color. With declining enrollments projected to continue through the next decade, historic turnover in the workforce as the baby boomer generation ages out, and a rapidly evolving economy which continues to place a premium on a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce, it is essential that we focus on providing more equitable opportunities and supports for first-generation and traditionally underserved students who increasingly represent a greater percentage of our student population. In doing so, we aim to enhance social and economic mobility for all citizens, but particularly for those who historically have been underserved and underrepresented in our schools and in our society. We look forward to working closely with you as we move forward on this ambitious agenda.
Administered jointly by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Higher Education, Early College is one of the signature programs that prioritizes equitable access and opportunity for underserved and underrepresented students. 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. Notably, 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 17 officially designated Early College programs across the Commonwealth serving approximately 2,000 students, and there are more applications in the queue that would expand participation by up to 1,000 more students next year. In order to ensure that the program remains cost free to high school students, the Governor’s budget includes an investment of $4.25 M, a $2.25 million increase in the Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Program (CDEP) line item. We strongly urge your support for this increase which enable 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.
Affordability is another key aspect in addressing disparities in college participation and closing opportunity and achievement gaps. As Secretary Peyser highlighted in his remarks, the Governor’s budget builds upon recent investments in state financial aid that have enabled us to launch the MassGrant Plus program. With your support, MassGrant plus continues to provide increased financial assistance for degree-seeking community college 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 adds $5 million to expand this program to students in the 4-year public university segment who have unmet financial need and participate in a college completion program. We see this as in important next step as we focus on building a comprehensive affordability strategy that combines financial aid with student supports to ensure their progress and ultimately success in earning a post-secondary degree.
In addition, the budget proposal 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 important 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.
This program is one of the most essential tools we have at the DHE to incentivize public colleges and universities to advance statewide goals and bring to scale best and promising practices across the public higher education system. From this line item we administer the Higher Education Innovation Fund grant program which awards funding competitively to individual campuses 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. Without these resources we would not have been able to create a system of transfer between and among our two and four-year public institutions.
Particularly noteworthy are the programs we support that align squarely with the Board of Higher Education’s Equity Agenda. First, the 100 Males to College program continues to demonstrate the success of a cohort model designed to increase college access, enrollment, retention, and success for low-income students and students of color, particularly young men, to positively impact their prospects for success in college and career. What began with a single pilot in Springfield, which saw a 95% success rate in its first cohort, now includes Brockton, Salem, Framingham and Worcester. Additionally, two new projects were funded this year that provide more focused supports for racial minorities in our system: Bunker Hill Community College’s Center for Equity and Cultural Wealth builds on their long- standing collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Boston in building cultural inclusivity in curricular and co-curricular practice with the diverse student bodies at both institutions; and Mass Bay Community College has launched a program to increase the number of women and students of color in their Computer Science curriculum and transfer partnership with Framingham State University. These examples illustrate our shared commitment to Equity with our campus leaders and the students themselves.
Lastly, 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 (PMRS). This system tracks key performance indicators in the areas of 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.
As the Secretary noted in his remarks, the Governor’s budget includes additional resources for the incremental costs of collective bargaining, as well as the performance-based funding formula for the community colleges and state universities. It is essential that as we work to refine performance-based metrics to evaluate our success at the campus and the system levels, we recognize the importance of making the connection between resources and outcomes, and that we commit ourselves to delivering optimal value to our students and to all our stakeholders through sustainable and strategic funding and a particular focus on equitable opportunities and outcomes.
In closing my remarks, I wish to thank you and your colleagues for continuing to support public higher education. While each of the three segments of our system differs in terms of their purpose and their challenges, my team and I are eager to move forward with them and with you on our Equity work and build upon successful strategies that focus resources and efforts on closing opportunity and achievement gaps . 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.
The Commissioner's testimony was delivered at the Joint Committee on Ways & Means hearing in March 6, 2020 as part of a series of public hearings held throughout February and March focused on different components of Governor Baker’s FY2021 budget request.
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.