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Globe Editorial

A ‘Vision Project’ for higher ed

May 5, 2010

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HIGHER EDUCATION commissioner Richard Freeland isn’t whining, but he could. There is something fundamentally wrong with a state education system that puts so much attention on getting its K-12 students ready for college only to give short shrift to the state’s five public university campuses, nine state colleges, and 15 community colleges.

Freeland was a turnaround artist at Northeastern University, where he served as president from 1996 to 2006. He’ll need those skills to capture the spotlight in a state with so many selective private colleges and universities. But he has one thing going for him: Graduates of the public colleges tend to stay around, unlike many of their private counterparts. In the state’s knowledge economy, a strong workforce can’t be supported for long by a mediocre public higher education system.

Freeland is borrowing what worked from the K-12 education reform playbook. He will seek more support from state lawmakers, but he will offer new levels of accountability in return. That means that graduation rates, scores on Accuplacer tests taken by incoming freshmen, passing rates on licensing examinations, job placement statistics, and other measurements of quality will soon be collected and shared with the public for comparative purposes. Freeland calls it his “Vision Project,’’ and yesterday, the state Board of Higher Education offered its formal approval.

The board is preparing another challenge to the status quo. Despite improvements in K-12 education, many students are still showing up at state and community colleges in need of remedial tutoring, especially in math. The board, therefore, is contemplating changing the math requirement for any student stepping foot on a state college campus. That might mean requiring four years of high school math, instead of the current three. Or it might mean a minimum entry requirement of Algebra II, the foundation for all higher levels of mathematics. Either way, it would be a powerful prod.

The state colleges aren’t there to mop up the problems in the high schools. And they shouldn’t be expected to, when Massachusetts has reduced fiscal support for public higher ed more than any other state over the past five years, according to an Illinois State University analysis.

Freeland and the higher ed board aren’t asking for a handout. They simply want lawmakers and public policy makers to acknowledge that public education doesn’t stop at high school.

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