Ben Forman offers testimony to Joint Committee on Higher Education

An Act Committing to Higher Education the Resources to Insure a Strong and Healthy Public Higher Education System

Testimony in Support of S. 816/H. 1260
An Act Committing to Higher Education the Resources to Insure a Strong and Healthy Public Higher Education System

September 18, 2023

The Honorable Senator Jo Comerford
Chair, Joint Committee on Higher Education
State House, Room 410
24 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02133

The Honorable Representative David M. Rogers
Chair, Joint Committee on Higher Education
State House, Room 43
24 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02133

Dear Chair Comerford and Chair Rogers,

Over the past several years, MassINC has produced several studies that point to the need to make public higher education more affordable for low-income residents of the commonwealth. I hope that summarizing our research findings with this written testimony provides value to the joint committee, as you weigh the merits of the Cherish Act.

Public higher education remains a powerful source of economic mobility for low-income students who can find ways to pay for college. This is demonstrated by MassINC’s research on the labor market returns to two-year degrees, and Whitney Kozakowski’s recent analysis of four-year degrees.[i] These studies show low-income students who complete postsecondary degrees enjoy sizeable earnings gains that are at least as large, and in some cases larger, than their non-low-income peers. However, most low-income students do not realize these gains because they simply cannot afford to go to college, and many of those who do enroll abandon their studies when they find the expense too great to bear.

This fact is evident in John Papay’s research, which shows that low-income students scoring at the 50th percentile on the tenth grade MCAS in 2011 were half as likely as non-low-income students with the same score to complete a four-year college degree; even at the 99th MCAS percentile, low-income students were 20 percentage points less likely to become bachelor’s degree holders.[ii] These disparities were steadily increasing before the pandemic disruption widened them considerably.

An evaluation of efforts to build clear transfer pathways from the state’s community colleges to its four-year institutions provides yet another indication that public higher education is cost prohibitive for those with limited means in Massachusetts. Instituted over the past decade, these new transfer pathways have helped students from moderate-income families pursue a more affordable route to a bachelor’s degree, but they have made no difference for students from low-income families.[iii]

Pricing low-income students out of public higher education has severe consequences for the Massachusetts economy, as low-income students make up an increasingly large share of our college-going population. MassINC estimates suggest the commonwealth will likely lose 200,000 skilled workers before the end of this decade. While low fertility rates and outmigration contribute to this problem, declining college completion rates for new entrants to the workforce accounts for at least one-third of the losses that we are suffering.[iv]

As the joint committee considers efforts to make public higher education affordable, it is important to appreciate how underinvesting in the sector exacerbates geographically unbalanced economic development in the commonwealth. Wealthy private institutions in Greater Boston can offer some local students from low-income families generous scholarships, and the eastern part of the state continues to have success importing college graduates from elsewhere. But outside of Greater Boston, regional economies rely heavily on public higher education to produce their skilled workers. These areas of the commonwealth are seeing the sharpest reduction in the college-educated labor force. Regional economies outside of Greater Boston operate with Massachusetts’s cost-structure and regulatory environment. They cannot compete on this playing field without a highly skilled workforce.

While it is vital to make public higher education affordable for all students and families in our commonwealth, this will have limited impact if public institutions are unable to hire faculty that can prepare students for the jobs of the future. Recent MassINC research shows community college salaries in Massachusetts are 25 percent below the US average, adjusting for cost of living; salaries at the state’s four-year publics fall 15 percent below the US average. Our public colleges and universities compete for highly qualified faculty in the same geographic market as privates, and our privates lead the nation in compensation levels.[v]

With increasingly tight labor markets, public colleges and universities are having an especially difficult time recruiting and retaining faculty in applied fields, such as accounting and health care. In a recent examination of pathways through Early College and into health careers, MassINC found that building a larger pipeline of students prepared to pursue challenging health majors will do little good because most community colleges and many public universities cannot attract and retain enough medical educators to accommodate the number of qualified applicants that they receive today.[vi]

In a report released last April, MassINC outlined numerous ideas for improving public higher education finance in Massachusetts. First, we stressed the need to prioritize helping low-income students cover the full cost of attendance with increased funding for state financial aid. Second, we argued for approaches to financial aid that reduce complexity and clearly communicate to students that they can attend public colleges and universities in Massachusetts without going into debt. Third, we backed complementary investments in comprehensive student supports to ensure that first-generation college-goers are positioned for success. And to enable public colleges and universities to offer competitive salaries, we called for delivering additional institutional support through a weighted funding formula, as well as examining whether campus consolidation could produce meaningful efficiencies.

As the committee digs deeper into these issues, we encourage you to leverage the state’s new longitudinal data infrastructure. The research described above was only possible through advances that allow us to follow students through K-12, higher education, and into the workforce. This new data gives us an unprecedented view of complex processes and long-term outcomes. MassINC is eager to offer guidance to legislators with questions about these data systems and the new insights that we are gaining from them with each passing day.

Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony and for all your work in support of public higher education in the commonwealth.



Benjamin Forman

Research Director, MassINC



[i] Alicia Sasser Modestino. “Pathways to Economic Mobility: Identifying the Labor Market Value of Community College in Massachusetts.” (Boston, MA: MassINC and The Boston Foundation, 2021); Whitney Kozakowsk. “Are Four-Year Public Colleges Engines for Economic Mobility? Evidence from Statewide Admissions Thresholds.” EdWorkingPaper No. 23-727 (Providence, RI: Brown University, 2023).

[ii] John Papay and others. “Lifting All Boats? Accomplishments and Challenges from 20 Years of Education Reform in Massachusetts.” (Providence, RI: Brown University, 2020).

[iii] Murnane, R.J., Willett, J.B., Papay, J.P., Mantil, A., Mbekeani, P.P., & McDonough, A. (2022). Building Stronger Community College Transfer Pathways: Evidence from Massachusetts. Providence, RI: Educational Opportunity in Massachusetts, Brown University.

[iv] MassInc. “Sizing Up Massachusetts’ Looming Skilled-Worker Shortage.” (Boston, MA: June 2022).

[v] J. Oliver Schak and Ben Forman. “Getting Question 1 Right: Investment Options for Equity in Public Higher Education.” (Boston, MA: MassINC, 2023).

[vi] Ben Forman and Simone Ngongi-Lukula. “Tapping the Power of Health Pathways in Early College High Schools.” (Boston, MA: MassINC, 2023)

Meet The Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

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