Higher Education commissioner testifies before Joint Ways and Means Committee

By Patrick Hoff

Justin Surgent/Daily Collegian
Justin Surgent/Daily Collegian

Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland came to the University of Massachusetts on Tuesday to testify in front of the Joint Ways and Means Committee about the 2015 fiscal year budget.

“The year ahead will be pivotal for public higher education as we seek to advance the historic investments that began in fiscal year 2014 in service of building one of the nation’s top systems of public higher education,” Freeland said in his testimony.

As higher education commissioner, Freeland is directly responsible for the nine state universities and 15 community colleges in the commonwealth and has knowledge of the UMass system, which is headed by President Robert Caret.

In an interview with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, Freeland said that the state funding provided to the systems in the 2014 fiscal year helped to move Massachusetts’ per student support ranking for higher education up a bit, but the state remains in the “middle of the pack.” Moving this ranking up out of the 20s is a “matter of investment,” he said.

The commissioner said the government provides an average level of funds to the higher education system, resulting in mirrored results.

“If you look at institutional performance … it’s pretty average,” Freeland said.

The problem, he continued, is that educated minds are what the state has to offer to the outside world in terms of investments. It’s impossible to sell tax breaks or the weather to potential investors, he said, so Massachusetts has to make sure there is an educated workforce to provide to businesses. This means increasing the excellence of education and graduation rates across the higher education system. At UMass, the six-year graduation rate of first-time freshmen is below 60 percent.

Freeland said that while affordability of education is definitely important, excellence of education should be the primary goal. He added that affordability also should not mean cheap – it should mean a good education for a reasonable price.

In order to increase affordability, Freeland said, public institutions across the state have begun sharing resources, such as IT departments and software vendor agreements. This way every state school and community college is not spending money on the same things.

“Campuses don’t love that,” he said, adding it makes financial sense.

In the 2014 fiscal year, Massachusetts ranked among the top five states in the year-to-year increase of state funding to public universities, according to Freeland’s testimony.

“I believe our public campuses are providing a solid return on investment for the heightened support we have received while also making good progress with respect to cost savings,” Freeland said in the testimony.

Freeland likened the increase of funds for higher education to the increase of funds for K-12 education in 1993. Beginning in 1993, Massachusetts began investing more into its K-12 education system and continued to increase its investment each year. Massachusetts now ranks among the top performing K-12 systems in the country, and Freeland believes that a similar investment could produce the same results in higher education.

The problem, Freeland said, is that while K-12 was getting a higher investment, higher education was being disinvested in. Freeland said it does not make any sense since the higher education system is what students are being prepared for in grades K-12. If the systems do not match up, neither will the results.

If the legislature decides not to increase its investment in higher education, Freeland said he fears colleges and universities will be forced to choose whether to invest in quality of education or financial aid, quickly pushing costs up.

Freeland said that Massachusetts ought to aspire to be a top tier system and make it a goal to move out of the middle of the pack.

Following his testimony to the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Freeland spoke with student leaders at UMass about their different groups, including the Center for Multicultural Advancement for Student Success, the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, and Divest UMass.

Patrick Hoff can be reached at [email protected] and followed at @Hoff_Patrick16.