Give our public colleges a helping hand

Why the state's second-class treatment of its 29 public universities and colleges is bad for our economy and our future.

Richard Freeland, the state commissioner of higher education, is taking on a monumental task. (Globe photo / Josh Campbell) Richard Freeland, the state commissioner of
higher education, is taking on a monumental task.
By Jon Marcus
October 31, 2010

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Richard Freeland looks as if he’s running for something.

Full of energy, Freeland stands in a sport jacket and tie at the front of a worn-out ballroom in a Hyannis hotel less than half full of equally tired-looking union leaders in pastel-colored golf shirts and sensible shoes. It’s the last morning of the summer conference of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. The weekend awaits, and the people in the room have so far seemed more attentive to their coffees than to the speakers.

But Freeland is very good at making pitches like the one he’s come here to deliver. It’s a skill he honed in 10 years as a university president, a job that requires as much tact and persuasion as any political office. He piloted Northeastern University out of a downward spiral in enrollment that threatened its existence, aggressively marketing the school at a time when the rest of academia looked down its nose at such a thing, pulling off the seemingly impossible feat of moving the onetime commuter school to its new rank among the nation’s most selective private universities.

That’s not what Freeland has come here today to talk about, however. He has a new cause. This one is much, much tougher. In political terms – and this is nothing if not political – he’s the underdog again.

Richard Freeland is here to sell these politically connected labor leaders, and eventually everybody else in Massachusetts, on not one, but 29 universities and colleges. The state’s public universities and colleges, to be specific. The Rodney Dangerfields of Massachusetts higher education. Afterthoughts. Schools that, even in this brainy, blue corner of the country, saw their budgets cut in the years leading up to this recession. The fact that almost no one noticed is a reflection of just how little respect they get.

Freeland has been tapped to raise the profile of, and public and political support for, all of these schools, whose brand has fallen to a level lower than Northeastern’s ever did. Safety schools, for the most part, in one of only two states in the nation (the other is Rhode Island) where more students attend private universities than public. A patchwork of institutions mistrustful of one another that have hoarded their shares of shrinking state budget allocations in a system that encourages competition over collaboration. Choices of last resort for students who don’t have the grades or test scores or finances to go anyplace else – including, increasingly, talented middle-class kids priced out of Massachusetts private universities, some of which now charge tuition greater than the median annual American household income. Of the students admitted to the flagship Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts, only 22 percent enroll, down from 31 percent 10 years ago.

“I want young people who go to these institutions to feel good about them – that they’re first-class institutions,” Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education, says in his Beacon Hill office a few days after his AFL-CIO speech. “The students tend to doubt that now.” Massachusetts needs to decide whether it will feed its next generation a higher-education diet that is more akin to steak than macaroni, he says. Today, he says, it’s macaroni.

Other states in far worse economic shape have managed to catalyze public and political support for state-run universities, largely by making an argument that they can help drive economic recovery, and by mobilizing influential business interests and angry middle-class voters who are paying escalating tuition to make up for public budget cuts. The crisis speaks to the very question of why public higher education exists, and who should pay for it. It’s a moment Richard Freeland is determined to seize. But first, he has to prove that the state’s long-suffering public colleges are worth the investment. He has to persuade politicians. He has to persuade prospective students. He has to persuade employers. And he has to persuade you.

Would you buy a Massachusetts public higher education from this man?

* * *

It’s a hard sell. That’s because, from the outside, Massachusetts public colleges look as if they’re doing great. Students are pouring in. UMass Amherst had a record 31,000 applicants this year for 4,500 seats in the freshman class. Even with fewer admitted students choosing to enroll, the overflow is spilling onto other UMass and state campuses. Community colleges, in particular, are so crowded that, at Holyoke Community College, students park on what used to be the tennis courts. Bunker Hill Community College famously started offering two courses last year that begin at 11:45 p.m. and has added five more this semester to make room for students who can’t get into crowded daytime classes or who work full time.

The reason for all the applications is simple: Despite years of increases in fees to make up for cuts in state appropriations – Massachusetts public colleges get an F for affordability from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education – public colleges here remain much cheaper than private ones. Private Northeastern, for example, costs $49,452 per year in tuition, fees, and room and board, while UMass Amherst charges $20,545 and Bridgewater State $16,935. At the community colleges, tuition and fees total about $3,800.

The problem is that this flood of enrollment comes after a decade during which the Legislature’s appropriation for higher education fell 7 percent – 18 percent accounting for inflation – according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. It would have been far worse but for federal stimulus funding that runs out next year, threatening an even more drastic plunge in support. Those crowded campuses are crumbling. More than 70 percent of the buildings at UMass Amherst alone need to be repaired or replaced, at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.

There are a lot of reasons for this neglect. One is that, other than by making public higher education seem like a relative bargain, the presence of all those private universities really doesn’t help. “The influence and power and clout in this state come from alumni of the private universities, not the public ones,” says Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at UMass Amherst and author of Saving State U: Why We Must Fix Public Higher Education. “The privates suck the oxygen out of the political atmosphere.”

Elsewhere in the nation, says state Senator Stan Rosenberg, who attended UMass Amherst, most legislators who are college-educated are products of public systems. “So they have a loyalty and can understand and connect to that,” he says. In Massachusetts, a comparatively low 38 percent of legislators went to a public university or college here.

Sometimes private universities’ antipathy to publics has been overt. Fearing competition, some private colleges helped stall for a decade the contentious construction of the UMass Boston campus and exile it to what was then considered a remote location on the site of a onetime garbage dump. Ditto a public medical school, banished ultimately to Worcester.

Separate from Freeland’s campaign to bring attention and resources to the public universities, an advocacy group called PHENOM, for Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, is working to marshal the faculty, staff, and students at state schools. But progress has been painfully slow. There is longstanding mistrust between students, faculty, and staff on the one hand and administrators on the other. Plans to force a debate among the gubernatorial candidates about higher education came to nothing.

“College administrators have not used the potential power of students, alumni, or students’ families to advocate for public higher education,” says Ferd Wulkan, PHENOM’s organizing director. One result? Politicians, says Freeland, “cut into cities and towns, and the phone rings off the hook. They cut into the State Police, and the phone rings off the hook. They cut higher education, and nobody calls.”

Elected officials, after all, know that public universities can get their money somewhere else: by continuing to raise the price charged to tens of thousands of students and their parents. Average tuition and fees rose 77 percent in the last 10 years at Massachusetts community colleges, 104 percent at UMass schools, and 114 percent at the other state colleges and universities. Tuition and fees in the UMass system exceed the national average for public four-year colleges by 36.5 percent.

“Legislators are cowards, by and large, and so they avoid cutting things that have real consequence [for them] as much as they can,” says David Waymire, a political consultant in Michigan who has many public-university clients. “If you can cut university spending and the university just gets it back by raising tuition, even though that still impacts taxpayers, then who cares? And that’s exactly what is happening.”

Nor have the public colleges done much to help themselves. Thanks to a structure they encouraged, there is one UMass president and board, and each state college and community college has its own, too. Each competes against the others for money, facilities, and programs. Each has its own line in the state budget, and there’s another for the UMass system. Max Page, who teaches architecture at UMass Amherst and serves as higher-education representative on the executive committee of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (though he notes that his opinions are his own), calls it “the circular firing squad of public higher education. It’s the community colleges against the state universities against UMass, and within UMass, the flagship against the other campuses. So when you have declining resources, you have people fighting over the scraps.”

After Freeland proposed his plan to finally get more for everyone, it took him a year of patient diplomacy just to line up the 29 Balkanized schools behind it – even though it’s meant to be in their collective interest. He calls it the Vision Project. And when you read it, he says, “You say, ‘Duh.’ ” That’s because, from the first line, it’s breathtaking in its obviousness: It will demonstrate, the plan says, “that public higher education can act in a unified and focused way to ensure the future well-being of the Commonwealth, and that we are ready to hold ourselves accountable for results to the people of the state.”

Freeland is asking the schools to make a bet. “Let’s put some energy into showing the public that we’re first-rate and the money will follow,” he says. “We have spent so much time fighting among ourselves and so much time fighting between the public and private sectors that we haven’t organized as an industry. And it’s an immensely powerful constituency – if we can get our act together.”

* * *

An energetic 69, Freeland is unpretentious and approachable in ways many university leaders are not. It’s a helpful characteristic in his new line of work, considering that his largely policymaking job of commissioner, to which he was appointed at the start of 2009, relies more on persuasion than on any real power. All of 5-foot-8, he’s a man-of-the-people kind of guy who favors sport coats over business suits and forgoes expense-account lunches for microwaved soup in the office. Freeland seems equally comfortable working a room of burly union bosses or patiently reassuring suspicious academics. Though he was born in New Jersey, he went to Amherst College, worked as a professor at Clark and as an administrator at UMass and Northeastern, and has what colleagues call a Yankee sensibility. His personal cachet makes even the most skeptical observers parse their words when asked if what he seeks to do is feasible. So does his track record. “People’s personal respect for him curbs their belief that they think he has an impossible job,” says Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a public-policy think tank in Boston.

Freeland pulled Northeastern out of its nose dive by, among other things, setting the unheard-of public goal of cracking the top 100 in the all-important U.S. News & World Report college rankings, a score card other universities – publicly, at least – deride. He also advertised, another practice other schools disdained, including on the right-field wall at Fenway Park in 2004, which, as it turned out, put Northeastern’s name before a television audience of millions during the Red Sox’ victorious World Series run.

Controversial though these and other measures were among some faculty and others on the campus, applications nearly tripled, squeezing the acceptance rate from 85 percent to 38 percent today and making Northeastern more selective than Boston University. The proportion of students from out of state has jumped from a little more than half to more than two-thirds. And by the time Freeland stepped down, Northeastern had shot from 162d to 98th in U.S. News.

Freeland’s newest task is even more monumental, and he’s painstakingly lining up support. He says he has no dollar figure in mind for how much more he’d like to see the Legislature spend on higher education. One step at a time, he says. Among other things, he wants to prove that universities can save money, not just spend it. The announcement last month that UMass Amherst would offer an accelerated three-year degree, cutting the cost for students by at least a year’s worth of tuition, is one example.

So far, people vital to his plans are mostly watching from the sideline. They’ve seen it all before. The state’s public higher-education system was restructured twice between 1980 and 1991. Governor Mitt Romney tried unsuccessfully to do it again in 2003, when he attempted to close or consolidate campuses. “We have failed to create a comprehensive vision that we stick with,” legislator Rosenberg says. “We either don’t make a plan, or we make a plan and then we make a new one a few years later.”

* * *

Massachusetts legislators aren’t the only lawmakers to slash funding for public higher education. California, Florida, and New York have made enormous cuts to universities. But some states have taken the opposite approach.

One is Maryland, which has the same high levels of education and income as Massachusetts. Its state universities had become among the most expensive in the country. But a highly sophisticated crusade by higher-education advocates that aimed at the 2006 governor’s race and beyond maneuvered gubernatorial candidates to make the quality of public colleges a campaign issue, appealing to voters stung by 40 percent tuition hikes with commercials showing, among other things, a child reaching in vain for a diploma sitting on a mantelpiece. By the time the election was over, says the eventual winner, Martin O’Malley, residents had become convinced of “the connection between quality education, affordable colleges, and the strength of the economy.” The universities kept up the momentum, charming the General Assembly by finding more than $100 million in savings. The result has been state funding that, among other things, allowed tuition to be frozen for four years, despite the economic downturn.

Ohio, which, like Massachusetts, has largely independent, fiercely competitive public colleges, also has made public higher education a financial and political priority on the grounds that the state schools can attract new businesses, train workers, and develop industries to replace vanishing manufacturing. “There is an unbreakable connection between economic growth and prosperity and educational achievement,” Governor Ted Strickland says. “Those states, and I hope Ohio is one of them, that have protected education and nurtured education will be the states that lead the new economy.” If any of his fellow governors were to ask him why he’s been so supportive of the universities, “I would tell them it’s entirely out of selfish motivation,” he says of this ongoing effort.

Strickland and others, frustrated by the unwillingness of the Ohio colleges to change – each operates under a separate board with its own lobbyists, and many have built empires of branch campuses with overlapping programs – prodded the schools by promising them increased funding as a reward. Newspaper editorials also egged them on. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that the schools “must put away the daggers and one-upmanship.” The Columbus Dispatch said that they had to “become team players in a way that they haven’t before.”

That’s the kind of public consensus Freeland wants to create in Massachusetts. He’s been canvassing the state to bring his message to whoever will listen, from chambers of commerce to high school guidance counselors. “We’re trying to build a broad movement,” Freeland says. So far, “the reaction is often, ‘You’re right and we agree with you, but we’ve heard it before and not much has changed.’ ” To that, he responds that no one thought Northeastern could be turned around, either.

Freeland’s principal argument is that Massachusetts needs public colleges to supply its workforce. “We need jobs at all levels of the economy,” he says. “Of course we need doctors, but we also need nurses.” Besides, he says, more public-university graduates stick around and work in Massachusetts than private-university graduates – 85 percent, compared with 50 percent from BC, just over 30 percent from BU, and 18 percent from Harvard – boosting the economy and more than paying back the state’s investment in them. (Private-university officials are skeptical of the public universities’ statistics, and even of their own, pointing out that many students likely leave the state without bothering to update their addresses with the alumni office.)

Business interests agree – in principle, at least. They’re crucial to Freeland’s plan. It’s business that has helped push support for public universities over the top in other states. “What we need is a qualified, educated workforce with the kinds of skills that are taught at public universities,” says Gary DiCamillo, a partner in the business consulting firm Eaglepoint Advisors and chairman of the Education Task Force of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. “IT, middle management, middle-level financial services – those are the kind of people we’re short of in Massachusetts.” Trouble is, he says, the public colleges aren’t producing enough of them. “They matriculate, but they don’t graduate.”

He’s right. Lots of students may come in, but it takes them forever to get out. That’s true for colleges nationwide, and Massachusetts is no exception. Slightly more than half who are admitted to UMass Amherst graduate within four years, and a third still haven’t finished after six. And the numbers are worse at other public colleges and universities in the state – more than half of students fail to finish within six years. At the community colleges, only 17 percent receive their degrees within one and a half times the traditional completion periods.

Business people say they need that to change before they can wholeheartedly support the public universities. Nor has Massachusetts public higher education shown that it can quickly respond to workplace demands, they say. When Fidelity Investments failed to find a Massachusetts public college to train financial-services professionals for mid-level jobs, it teamed up with Bryant College (now Bryant University) in Rhode Island. “Why wasn’t it possible to get our act together to make sure that stayed here?” asks the Pioneer Institute’s Stergios. “I think business would be excited by Freeland’s vision, but there’s also a history where they haven’t seen the benefits they’d like to see. In practice, [the universities] have been all thumbs.”

Freeland promises results. To prove his schools’ value to politicians, business leaders, families, and others, his Vision Project requires the universities and colleges to regularly report their progress in seven areas, including graduation rates, degrees produced in key professions, graduate-school exam and professional-certification results, and income from the licensing of products developed from research.

Work on figuring out how to measure all of these things got under way at a conference last month. (The statistics will be provided for each of the three levels of public higher education collectively – community colleges, state universities and colleges, and the UMass schools – not for every campus separately, which insiders say nervous presidents vehemently opposed.) Freeland has also set up a committee to look for savings that can come from joint purchasing and similar collaborations, as well as new ways to make improvements without big budget increases that the recession makes unlikely for the moment. As he liked to say at Northeastern, “Before you tell your story, you have to have a good story to tell.”

By some measures, he already does. Some top students turn down invitations to prestigious private universities in favor of the UMass Amherst Commonwealth Honors College. UMass Lowell’s engineering program is a pipeline to General Electric. Of this year’s graduates from two-year Holyoke Community College, 21 were accepted to Mount Holyoke, 12 to Smith, and two to Amherst College. One fifth of the graduates of Greenfield Community College’s art department go on to the top-rated Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago. Springfield Technical Community College offers one of the nation’s only two-year programs in the fast-growing field of Internet security. Middlesex Community College has a partnership to help train students for jobs at National Grid, Northern Essex Community College with Raytheon, and Massachusetts Bay Community College for work at BioGen Idec. And Salem State this semester quickly launched a one-year graduate certificate program for students who want to work in the hospitality, restaurant, and tourism industries after hearing about the need from industry leaders.

Freeland wants to bring perception in line with what he says is the reality of what public colleges can offer, and support for the schools in line with expectations. “We can’t ride along on the strength of Harvard and MIT anymore,” he says, “in a state that lives and dies by its brains, dependent on its knowledge economy. This is a state that needs all the home-grown talent it can get. So where’s the brainpower going to come from? It’s going to come from public higher education. Everybody agrees the state has an obligation to provide public higher education to its citizens. The question is, is it going to be steak or macaroni?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of presidents and boards at the University of Massachusetts.

Correction: Because of an editing error, this story incorrectly describes the administrative structure of the University of Massachusetts. It has a president and a board of trustees.

Jon Marcus is a Boston-based writer who covers higher education, including as US correspondent for the Times Higher Education magazine in the United Kingdom. Send comments to



Decline in the state’s support for higher education since 2000


The decline since 2000, adjusted for inflation


Rise in average tuition and fees at the state’s community colleges over the past 10 years


Rise at UMass schools over the same period


Rise at the rest of the state’s public colleges and universities


Amount by which tuition and fees in the UMass system exceed the national average for public four-year colleges

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