What is the Proper Role of Higher Education in the States?

Last week, Thomas Farragher provided some thoughtful commentary on the perils of underfunding public higher education in Massachusetts. It's an important discussion that reaches well beyond how much money flows to higher education.

Mr. Farragher argued that the cost of attending U Mass Amherst is $26,445 annually but that tuition is only a bit more than $1,700 of this number. He suggested that "bragging right" full tuition scholarships mean little when calculating the true cost of attendance at public colleges and universities in the state. Mr. Farragher further noted that this is bad for the booming Massachusetts knowledge economy. He reported that the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council estimates that Massachusetts has 17 jobs for every graduate in tech and computer science programs.

Where Mr. Farragher's argument breaks down is when he equates the failure to fund public higher education partly with the richness of the private college and university community in the state. He suggested that Massachusetts state legislators have adopted a "let the privates educate the masses," while they view public support, according to one former higher education official, almost as "a social welfare project."

Mr. Farragher cites Mohammad Ali, chief executive of Boston-based Carbonite, which produces cloud backup and recovery software: "We live in the shadows of MIT and Harvard, but they cannot put out the number of people that we need . . . We're kind of elitist here. We're enamored with private higher education. We forget that we have to have the richness of public education, too."

Let's peel back the onion a bit to explore this argument more deeply.

First, most of us can accept the fact that many states do not fund higher education sufficiently. Within Massachusetts public higher education, no sector does well although the state's community colleges may face the worst public higher education funding deficiencies.

Second, let's remember that not all of the private colleges and universities in Massachusetts are Harvard and MIT - not by a long shot. Neil Swidey's telling piece in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine yesterday speaks to the danger of families attending underfunded private colleges whose students take on significant debt that they do not fully comprehend and cannot afford.

What Mr. Swidey did not fully explore is that it costs something to live in cities like Boston whether or not you attend college, full- or part-time. Students would incur the room and board and some cost of attendance fees, whether in school or not.

Further, Massachusetts fails to provide a robust state student grant program that is common in many states to offset some of this student debt. Most private colleges in Massachusetts are under resourced, poorly endowed institutions with aging physical plants now having trouble meeting their freshman admission targets. Life along the Charles is a world that most private college employees can only dream about.

So, what's the problem? The disparity between tuition fees and the comprehensive cost of attendance reflects two painful facts.

The first is that Massachusetts operates on an annual state budget cycle determined not by long term needs in public higher education but by political expediency in the Massachusetts statehouse. It's almost impossible to manage a long-term strategic vision for public higher education coordinated with a political election cycle where the players change with voter preferences. The second is that university bureaucrats have manipulated the room, board and fee structure beyond tuition to balance their budgets to respond to the demands from governors and the legislature for decades.

Who can blame them?

Massachusetts leads the nation in any number of categories but it regularly shoots itself in the foot. It may be better to think about the richness of the higher education system in the Commonwealth than peel off underfunded segments with band-aid incremental solutions. And this starts with a fundamental question. What does Massachusetts want from its robust, rich and decentralized higher education system?

We can look at any number of funding crises, growing problems of social and economic inequality, and the inability of the state to train and prepare graduates who meet the work force demands of the 21st Century. Boston is the "hub" of New England, but the rest of the region needs support too. Massachusetts' state leaders must begin regional discussions about how to grow New England through better coordination, careful planning, combined efficiencies and economies of scale, and a better and broader strategic vision that sustains a case for higher education funding no matter who sits in the governors' chairs across the region.

This begins with taking the case to the voters. Chancellors can fix the inequalities in tuition, fee, room and board numbers within the comprehensive fee. Legislators can ration increased dollars to higher education and within public higher education to pick winners and losers among the higher education sectors. And governors can announce initiatives that fix "MBTA-like" capital funding deficiencies in college and university physical plants.

What they cannot do is postpone the discussion about what happened when Massachusetts, and increasingly the rest of New England, grew into a mature, 21st century knowledge economy different from its past.