Commentary: Massachusetts lacks equity in higher education

By Dr. Patricia A. Gentile

It’s wonderful to see public attention turning to address equitable funding for K-12 school districts. I applaud the movement to revise state funding formulas and enhance appropriations in order to ensure that the most disadvantaged populations receive extra funding needed to improve their K-12 education and support capacity building in those school districts.

I’m delighted because many of the students who come to my college, North Shore Community College (NSCC), graduate from those under-funded school districts. Community colleges are great at meeting students where they are, supporting them to feel welcome and engaged, and helping them achieve their educational goals. That’s why thousands living in the state’s Gateway Cities enroll every year in one.

I’ll bet you are not aware that NSCC and our 14 sister community colleges enroll the largest number of Massachusetts residents in post-secondary education — hundreds of thousands of your neighbors. In fact, last year Massachusetts community colleges enrolled the largest proportion of all in the state who went to a public college or university — 40 percent of all the undergraduate full-time equivalents (FTEs) enrolled in a state college or university were carrying a community college student ID. Forty percent!

The community college student population may be a little different from what you visualize when you think of a college student. The average age is 26. The majority are the first in their families to go to college. Over 80 percent are working, with nearly half of those working 30 hours or more. Over 40 percent are people of color. Nearly all could be classified as middle- or lower-income families. A healthy fourth of them are single parents. Another large slice are English language learners. Many community college students are military veterans.

Our students reflect the diversity of our communities and supply the region’s workforce. Our graduates are the first responders who show up at your emergency, the teachers who love your kids, the accountants who help you do your taxes, and the medical personnel in your physician’s office or assisted living facility. Our graduates style your hair, bake your gourmet cupcakes, staff your local child-care center, and help bury your loved ones. A community college education transforms folks to become the productive workers, business leaders, engaged citizens, and public servants we need for healthy neighborhoods.

Unlike selective institutions, community colleges serve 100 percent of students in our state. We’re open access. That means if you want to come, we enroll you. We don’t turn anyone away.

That gets me back to why I’m so happy about the new attention on educational equity. A majority of our students come from those poorest school districts now targeted for educational investments. Most of our students were not able to enjoy the enrichment activities K-12 students in wealthier zip codes may have been afforded, and tend to be the least prepared for college-level work. In general, community college students need additional support to successfully complete their college program. That additional support means it is a bit more costly to educate a community college student than otherwise. Community college students need a college with a strong capacity to provide critical supports for success and completion.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts community colleges serving the largest number of students (40 percent of all FTEs), the largest proportion of students of color, and the largest number of low-income and disadvantaged populations receive the smallest share of the state’s higher education base funding. The 15 community colleges only receive 25 percent of the state’s higher education funding pie. The nine state colleges/universities receive the next 25 percent and the five University of Massachusetts institutions receive the rest — 50 percent. Public community colleges receive the least amount of funding per student of any sector of public education in this state, including K-12 school districts. Compounding that, when adjusted for inflation the base higher education pie has been shrinking for decades. This gradual disinvestment in community colleges negatively affects our capacity to support the neediest group of college students.

Put into plain English, in general the poorest and largest group of students of color in Massachusetts receive the least amount of state support for their riskier higher education journey. Unfortunately, there is no educational equity in higher education in this commonwealth. This needs to change, too.

Dr. Patricia A. Gentile is the president of North Shore Community College, which includes the Broad Street campus in Lynn.

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