Board of Higher Education launches effort to build support for public colleges and universities

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Richard Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education, recently visited the MassINC offices to discuss the Vision Project, a new initiative he has launched to build greater support for public higher education by improving the system’s quality.  The following Q&A provides an overview of the of the Vision Project.

Q. During this first year as Commissioner, you’ve spent a great deal of time working behind the scenes with critical stakeholders to build support for something called the Vision Project. What is it and why does Massachusetts need it?

I believe the general public does not fully appreciate the significance of our state and community colleges, nor relate them to the long term well-being of the state both in terms of producing the workforce we need for our innovation economy as well as just raising the overall educational levels of the state, which is one of the hallmarks of Massachusetts. The Vision Project is an attempt to demonstrate just how important we are in that overall effort. We want to focus all our energies on a limited number of goals that report our most important contributions to the state. We want to be a national leader in the percentage of high school graduates that we send on to college, in the number of those who enroll who graduate from our colleges, the level of learning they receive, and the success with which we meet workforce needs of the state. We will issue an annual report to the people of the Commonwealth on how we compare with other states in these areas.

Q. Iis it fair to be asking the hard-working folks on the public campuses to be held accountable at a time when they have seen cutbacks in state support for their efforts?

It’s a very fair question, to ask if we can be a national leader in educational results if we’re not a national leader in funding. We’re certainly not a national leader in funding. In fact, we’re behind the states we compete with in funding. Massachusetts has a very mediocre record in terms of providing support to our state and community colleges and really, to all of public higher education. The premise of the Vision Project is until we build a stronger base of support, we can’t really expect a higher level of funding. And also, that we need to strive for excellence on behalf of the state even in difficult times.

Q: Would you say especially in difficult times?

The importance of what we do is particularly heightened now, as Massachusetts is in a struggle with other industrial states to come out of this economy on top, and to attract business. Many other states have come to understand, as Massachusetts understood many years ago, that the university-based research which drives innovation and a college-educated workforce really represents the future not only of the state’s economy but the national economy. And so Massachusetts needs to stay ahead of other states in this national competition, if we’re going to recover from this economic disaster and stay strong in the future. That makes the role of public colleges even more important today than ever.

Q. You have often spoken of the business community’s key role in K-12 education reform.

Massachusetts has led the nation in K-12 reform efforts since the mid 1990s. It’s a stunning record and a great point of pride for the state. The whole point of K-12 reform is to make sure that we’re doing a better job of preparing our young people for college. So my message to the business community is, if it’s so important to prepare young people to be ready to enter college, isn’t it equally important to make sure that the college experience they have is as strong as it could possibly be? I believe that we need stronger support and ultimately better funding for our public institutions to make sure that all the good work we’ve done through education reform is not compromised by inadequate support for our public higher education system.

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