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Higher learning's reach

Eighth in an occasional series on important issues in the governor's race.

`I LIKED the trees and the bricks," campus tour guide James Peloquin said when asked recently why he chose to attend Framingham State College. Peloquin had a casual air, dressed in shorts, a Framingham T-shirt, and flip-flops. But his response is serious, the leafy top of a well-rooted answer that described the college's small size and sense of community. He will be a senior next month on a campus that does indeed have great trees, a classic red-brick-on-the- quad look, and ambitious plans to do more for students and the state.

The college's new president, Timothy Flanagan, who has only been on the job for a few weeks, talks about his new school with a soft-spoken exuberance.

Flanagan says he has heard a recurring story from students: The college was not their first choice. Costs or other factors pushed them to enroll. But over time they come to love the school. Classes are small, faculty are attentive, and opportunities to learn and lead are ample.

The school is also known for its education, nutrition, and fashion programs.

Flanagan's conclusion: Framingham should be a first choice for more students. ``It deserves that," he said.

A commitment to state colleges
Now all the state needs is a governor who can help make Framingham and all the state's public colleges and universities shine.

But in Massachusetts, public higher education has been sucked into a black hole of funding cuts, a 23 percent drop from 2001 to 2004. In 2005, funding began a slow increase. Flanagan says it was Vartan Gregorian , former president of Brown University, who noted that educators are good at doing more with less, but that we're running out of less.

To make up for state cuts, students and parents have had to pay more. One year at Framingham State costs more than $12,000 for state residents. It's a fraction of the $40,000-plus annual price of some private schools, but it's still too high for many families.

In recent weeks, Framingham lost 15 admitted freshmen because they couldn't pay the bill, according to Patricia Sánchez Connally , an admissions counselor and the coordinator of multicultural recruitment. Some of the students hadn't filed financial aid forms. And others who had financial aid still couldn't cover their share of the costs.

So Connally tries to problem-solve, explaining that students can start at a community college or work full time for a semester, then start college in the spring or enroll as a commuter to save on dorm costs.

The colleges and universities also have huge capital needs. The nightmarish example is the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where one might have filmed a horror movie in the dark, damp, and now, wisely, closed parking garage under the school.

All colleges face the question of how higher education will lead to a job. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, a Republican, has practical proposals in this regard. She wants high schools and colleges to partner with businesses. The lieutenant governor is also considering student loan forgiveness in high-demand fields such as nursing.

If lip service were dollars, public colleges and universities would be rich. All the gubernatorial candidates say they want the campuses to thrive. Repeated themes include the power of education and the importance of making college accessible and affordable.

Education for all
The candidate with the boldest proposal is Democrat Tom Reilly, who says his goal is that, ``all of our students will go on to achieve a postsecondary degree or credential."

It's a vision of radical, positive change that would make Massachusetts a place where high school dropouts would seem as quaint as typewriters, and workers would be exceptionally skilled. Effective new programs would steer even the most troubled teens and negligent students toward college and long-term success. Incarceration rates would probably drop. Teachers and professors would be well paid. And state schools -- from preschools to graduate programs -- would be well-financed, world-class institutions.

``I'm hoping I can spark a renaissance in state government," Reilly said in an interview at the Globe. It's also easy to hear Reilly's heart beating on this issue. He says the Springfield public schools ``saved me." And just as education made him, he thinks it can do the same for others.

Of course the state also needs a renaissance in financing. And the candidates have a range of proposals.

Democrat Deval Patrick calls for bond funding. For example, the proceeds from bonds issued to generate stem cell funds would be invested in research facilities and faculty development.

Democrat Chris Gabrieli calls for making the 529 college savings plans tax deductible at the state level, to increase savings.

Independent Christy Mihos would like to be chairman of the University of Massachusetts board of trustees to give higher education his full attention. He would draw on revenue from slot machines at race tracks and build on the aggressive fund-raising of former UMass president William Bulger.

Grace Ross of the Green-Rainbow Party calls for shifting the tax burden off lower- and middle- income families and ending corporate welfare to free money so that public higher education can invest in everything from developing community leaders to tackling global warming.

Vision and plans are plentiful in the campaign. But increased funding is the immediate need. That's why the public must keep insisting to the Legislature and the next governor: Show us the money.

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