Column: Innovative funding needed for Massachusetts community colleges

JAIME CAMPOS/Staff file photoDr. Patricia Gentile, President of the North Shore Community College, is the keynote speaker during the 2019 Honor Scholars Recognition Dinner in Danvers.

The commonwealth’s community colleges are local economic and workforce engines that provide accessible, affordable and excellent educational opportunities for all who can benefit. It’s sometimes hard for folks not in the sector to comprehend the significant services and programs offered by their local community college and the impact on the community, labor force, and neighbors. For instance, at North Shore Community College, since the college founding 55 years ago, we’ve touched the lives of more than 300,000 North Shore residents.

Since the creation of most of the 15 Massachusetts community colleges in the 1960s and ‘70s, the student population has grown and greatly diversified. For the academic year that ended June 2019, nearly 111,000 students enrolled in an undergraduate credit-bearing course at a Massachusetts community college. That does not count the additional nearly 35,000 students in a workforce development or non-credit professional development program. As a sector, we annually reach about 150,000 folks in an undergraduate learning experience. That’s more than the state universities and the UMass system combined.

The community college’s student population is the most diverse of any sector of higher education, with a growing proportion of our students being of a non-majority race or ethnicity. Because we are the most affordable option in the state, we also outperform all other public and private higher education institutions in terms of the percentage of our students in the lower-income strata. That translates into the highest proportion of students who are federal Pell eligible and in most financial need.

We are also enrolling adult learners who can no longer be classified as non-traditional students because they comprise the largest group of our sectors enrolled folks. This describes our new normal – a student population poorer than most college students; more diverse than any other enrolled population of students in private or public institutions; adult learners generally going part-time who are working hard in the labor force, most having head of family responsibilities at home; but, despite all the challenges, these are learners who are eager to better themselves and their families through attaining a post-secondary credential. They know higher education is their key to a better future.

Yet, the community college sector receives the least amount of public financial support per student per year than other public institutions from K-12 on up.

The Massachusetts Council of Presidents believe the commonwealth should invest in a SUCCESS Fund to expand student support services at our local community colleges to improve student outcomes, particularly as a tool to advance the state Department of Higher Education’s Equity Agenda. Nationally, this approach has been very successful.

Several years ago, New York’s CUNY system piloted a new model dubbed the Accelerated Study in Associate Program -- or ASAP. ASAP students are required to attend full-time while being supported with free tuition, free books, free transportation, enhanced advising, special first-year courses, cohort course modalities, intensive tutoring and career services, and financial assistance for other unmet needs. Not surprisingly, ASAP outcomes are phenomenal in terms of closing achievement gaps, increasing retention and graduation rates. Also not surprising is that it costs more to implement, but the cost per graduate was actually lower than the more traditional model. Many other states looked at ASAP, loved the idea but hated the upfront costs. Except Ohio.

In Ohio, the state took the ASAP model and adapted it for students at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cuyahoga Community College, and Lorain County Community College. A recent evaluation study from MDRC found that the colleges doubled their three-year graduation rates, students enrolled in the program earned 8.5 more credits on average compared to others, and transfers to four-year colleges grew by 60%.

The Ohio adaptation of the CUNY ASAP program cost only about $1,840 more per student per year. And, the cost per degree attained was 22% lower than students not in the program. So, it was deemed an efficient and effective use of taxpayers money to attain much better outcomes in a shorter time span.

In MA we simply can’t produce better results for our students without significant investment. It didn’t happen without investment in New York or Ohio and it won’t happen in Massachusetts without a significant increase in funding to help underwrite intensive student service wraparound supports. These models demonstrate that we know how to turn funding into increased outcomes…we just need increased funding to do that.

This budget cycle we are advocating for the state Legislature to appropriate a SUCCESS Fund line item to provide these wraparound supports so Massachusetts community college students can benefit from this same type of investment and employers can get the skilled, educated workforce they urgently need.

Dr. Patricia A. Gentile is president of North Shore Community College and chair of the Massachusetts Council of Community College Presidents.

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