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Community college changes urged

System needs a strong board, report asserts

A Boston Foundation report suggests that Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges merge. A Boston Foundation report suggests that Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges merge. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / November 18, 2011

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Massachusetts’ decentralized community college system should be overseen by a strong governing board that would refocus its mission on workforce development and establish a performance-based funding formula, according to a report the Boston Foundation is expected to release today.

The report - based on an extensive yearlong analysis of the system, which has low graduation rates and inconsistent educational programming - also suggests that the new board consider further changes, such as merging Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges into one school with two campuses.

The recommendations are likely to ignite debate in the Legislature and provoke an outcry from the state’s 15 community colleges, many of which are trying to implement their own improvements.

“I hope the colleges see this is not a blame game, not an assault, but just the reverse - we’re saying these institutions are crucial to the economic future of the state,’’ said Paul Grogan, chief executive officer of the foundation. He added that he would “have a bunker ready’’ should the schools, and legislators from their districts, prove recalcitrant.

The report has powerful supporters, including the mayor and many business leaders, who say that despite surging enrollment the colleges do not produce enough workers with the right high-tech skills.

“I like the spirit in which the report was developed. It offers some thoughtful and provocative solutions to the challenges we’re facing - ones that others might not have been willing to put on the table,’’ said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary. “There’s a sense of urgency now that we haven’t had before.’’

The foundation’s report comes just after recommendations made this week by the Boston Private Industry Council, which pinpointed many of the same challenges but took a gentler approach to solving them. The proposals of the council, which worked with some of the community colleges for 18 months, would not require major changes in funding or governance.

The Boston Foundation report stands in stark contrast - and many stakeholders, including presidents of the colleges, are seeing it for the first time today.

The foundation’s chief proposal, to centralize authority over the colleges, has been suggested before but foundered in the Legislature. This time, support is growing for a bill.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he would back a strong, new board and a funding mechanism based on factors such as graduation rates. “Some of the colleges do a good job, and some of them don’t at all,’’ he said. “People have to be taken to task if they don’t perform.’’

State Senator Michael Moore, cochairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on higher education, echoed those sentiments. “I do think they are doing a good job with the amount of funding they’re receiving, given the population they are serving,’’ he said of the colleges. “But we need to see if there is some way we could streamline or make more efficient use of resources.’’

Moore added that a stronger, more cohesive community college system would be better able to compete with four-year schools for state funds. Currently, funding for individual community colleges varies, often influenced by the clout of individual legislators.

Because community colleges accept all applicants, they serve a wide range of students, including some who take courses with no intent to earn degrees - a dynamic that partly explains low graduation rates. Community colleges were once ruled by a central governing board, but it was dissolved in 1991, and now there is little uniformity in the courses they offer or the metrics they use to assess student success.

Brenda Mercomes, vice president for academic affairs at Roxbury Community College, said that the board was abolished because it was not working.

“To go back to that, to force us into a neat little package - that probably wouldn’t work,’’ she said. “We have to be allowed to have our own identities.’’

In many states, community colleges report to a central authority. Their mission is simple - to prepare students for the workforce. The new report criticizes the mission of Massachusetts community colleges for “a lack of focus and an attempt to be all things to all people.’’

Yet many colleges view their wide mission as necessary. “We’re for people who want to move into new jobs, but also for people who want to get a liberal arts degree and transfer,’’ said Mercomes.

At Roxbury, she added, the issue is especially sensitive. “When the college was founded, there were people who wanted it to be just a training school for the workforce, not something academic,’’ she said.

“The community fought against that. It was really important to bring into the black community a school that was not just about manual training. There’s nothing wrong with working with your hands, but that’s not the only thing we are.’’

Employers, however, said the colleges’ desire to fulfill many needs is holding them back.

“It’s a mishmash of a mission,’’ said Dan O’Connell, head of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group of the area’s most influential chief executives. Without change, he said, “we will continue to see dismally low graduation rates in comparison to other systems and we will doom the system to failure.’’

One of the likely beneficiaries of the proposed changes - Richard Freeland, the commissioner of higher education, whose department would vastly expand in power - took a milder tack.

He praised the colleges, which recently banded together to win a $20 million federal grant for workforce development, and noted that his office is already encouraging them to coordinate their curriculums.

“There’s always a question of whether more central authority or less is a good thing,’’ he said. “I need to work with the system that exists. It’s tough to be doing that and at the same time be talking about how to change it.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.