Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal June 1 to make community colleges free to all high school graduates by 2017 raised as many questions as eyebrows.
Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal June 1 to make community colleges free to all high school graduates by 2017 raised as many questions as eyebrows. But more importantly, it served to shine the spotlight on Massachusetts' 15 two-year institutions and the important roles they serve in their communities and the commonwealth.
The idea of making community colleges, such as Massachusetts Bay CC, which has campuses in Wellesley Hills, Framingham and Ashland, free to qualified students is not new. In October, higher education officials proposed waiving two years of community college fees and tuition for Massachusetts high school students taking non-remedial and college preparatory courses. Two states - Delaware and New Jersey - offer community college scholarships. Other community colleges in NY offer full scholarships to students in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes.
By actually carrying out the plan over the course of the next decade for a free two-year education, Massachusetts would again be setting a national standard for higher education. But as the ideas evolve, policymakers should keep in mind that only one-third of community college students in the state are recent high school graduates. The average age of students at MassBay is 27, reflecting the state average. Nationally, it is 28.
And while community colleges are often seen as the receiving ground for students who don't have the resources to attend a four-year college either academically, financially or both, that is only a small part of the picture.
Community colleges also play a major role in this state's economy, and their students may be the difference between growth and inertia. Jobs are being outsourced almost daily, with positions that could be filled by workers who live and spend locally going to other states or foreign countries if only they received the proper education and/or training.
The governor's plan estimates that 20,000 unfilled jobs in the commonwealth require a two-year degree. In the MetroWest area, we are considered a potential growth area for the state, with a significant number of young persons as well as recent immigrants who work hard every day to achieve the American dream.
An estimated 220,000 students attend Massachusetts' two-year institutions annually, and more than 90 percent of Massachusetts community college alumni are employed in the state, according to masscc.org. Many students are working adults seeking to advance careers with new skills, who are changing professions or re-entering the workforce. More than 25 percent are ethnic minorities. Ten percent are learning English. Many are the first in their family to go to college, whether they are a recent immigrant or not.
The state's 15 community colleges turn out a highly skilled workforce in a short amount of time. When there is a shortage of workers in a certain sector like technology or health care, community colleges are able to create innovative, effective programs to quickly train potential new workers. In a state where one in seven jobs are related to the biotechnology field, MassBay in particular offers a nationally recognized biotech and forensic DNA program. Our goal at MassBay is not only to train people for the workforce so they can earn a living wage, but to also educate the whole individual so they can become lifelong learners as well as civically engaged citizens.
Currently, the average cost of community college education in Massachusetts is $3,477, way above the national average of $2,272, and putting even an associate's degree out of reach for some.
In many ways, the idea of two years of free college education for anyone who qualifies seems like wishful thinking by a politician seeking some positive headlines. Patrick's proposal, which also includes full-day kindergarten in all Massachusetts districts as well as a longer school day and year, did not include cost estimates or details about from where more money for education might come. That may be something on which politicians and voters will never agree.
No one, however, can argue that making a college education available to more people is a bad idea.
So whether a free community college education for all high school graduates would take the $180 million estimated by state officials and education advocates or the $25 million to $40 million alternative for some students as suggested by Higher Education Chancellor Patricia Plummer, what we all need to keep in mind is that education at every level - and at any age - is priceless.
We now need to work together to find ways that we can implement this progressive dream. Indeed, together we can!
Dr. Carole M. Berotte Joseph is president of MassBay Community College.