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Letter from the Commissioner

Commissioner Santiago

One of the highlights of my first year as Commissioner of Higher Education has been the time I have spent crisscrossing the state to meet with leaders, faculty, staff and students at our public campuses.

From the Berkshires to the Cape, from Salem to Springfield, people have taken time to share their personal stories and professional achievements with me. I have witnessed the transformative power of public higher education to change the lives of low-income and homeless students. I have seen the results that come from local workforce partnerships and regional collaborations between campuses. There is much good work to be proud of— and as the pages of this report make evident, our public system of higher education continues to “get the job done” even when budgets are tight.

But with this fourth annual report of the Vision Project highlighting both demographic and economic challenges that impact our system’s ability to produce much-needed college degrees, I believe it is necessary for us to redouble our efforts in three specific areas of the Vision Project:

With the majority of undergraduates in Massachusetts now attending our public higher education institutions, it is incumbent on all of us to ensure greater accessibility, more robust completion, and less variation in outcomes across the diversity of students we serve. Although there is outstanding work taking place across all seven areas of the Vision Project, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to focus our efforts on achieving better outcomes in these “Big Three” areas of work.

As we hone in on a more focused agenda, we must also look for ways to bring our best practices to scale (see Chairman Gabrieli’s Viewpoint on this topic) and to work more effectively as a system. My campus visits have served to remind me of the unique qualities of each individual institution. But my message to campus trustees and to the readers of this report is the following: To truly live up to its full potential, public higher education in the Commonwealth needs to speak with one concerted voice. It is also necessary that we implement those effective practices that allow us to have the most widespread impact in key areas. My experience in other states has demonstrated that responding to educational challenges as a “system” of institutions, each one unique, yet committed to the overarching goal of serving the educational needs of all citizens of the Commonwealth, will accelerate the good work that is reported herein.

Inside the Degree Gap: What the Data Show

The Data Dashboards show how the Massachusetts system of public higher education compares with other state systems by tracking performance across the seven outcome areas of the Vision Project. Overall, the system’s performance remains relatively flat, with some areas of improving or worsening performance as noted below.

Key outcome area 1: College Participation


Improving Performance
Massachusetts continues to be a national leader in the overall percentage of recent high school graduates who enroll in college.

Flat Performance Sizeable achievement and opportunity gaps—bigger than the national average— persist between white students and students of color when their ability to do college-level work in math and reading is measured and compared.

Key outcome area 6: Closing Achievement Gaps


Worsening Performance
The overall gap between the number of White and African American students at community colleges who must take non-credit remedial courses has grown over the past five years.

Flat Performance
The overall gap between White and Latino/a students taking remedial courses remains unchanged.

Key outcome area 2: College Completion


Flat Performance
Graduation rates for UMass and state university campuses are at an all-time high, with marked improvement shown at individual campuses. Still, at the segment level, overall graduation rates for public higher education are not yet improving at the ambitious, high-growth threshold of one percentage point per year. (Go to the Data Dashboards for a list of campuses that are meeting the threshold.)

Improving Performance
In the last year, the six-year graduation rate gaps between White and African American students has been reduced at the state universities and at the University of Massachusetts. The White-Latino/a graduation rate gap has also been reduced at UMass. These gaps, however, remain in the double digits.


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