TIME TO LEAD: Massachusetts’ Vision Project Unites 29 Public Campuses, Promotes Goal of National Leadership

Richard M. Freeland
Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education

Massachusetts needs a new paradigm for public higher education. Our public colleges and universities are vastly more important to the civic and economic wellbeing of the state than they have been historically. This is why the Board of Higher Education endorsed the Vision Project in 2010, an ambitious strategic plan to strengthen performance and achieve national leadership in seven areas of work: College Participation, College Completion, Student Learning, Workforce Alignment, Preparing Citizens, Closing Achievement Gaps and Research.

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Time to Lead asks the people of Massachusetts some basic questions: Is excellence in public higher education important to us? Do we truly need to be national leaders? And if we answer “yes” to these questions, what will it take for Massachusetts to have one of the top-performing public systems in the nation? 

When I began working at the University of Massachusetts over forty years ago, the landscape of higher education looked very different than it does today. In the early 1970s higher education in Massachusetts was first and foremost about private colleges and universities. By almost every measure, public higher education was the junior partner in the state’s academic enterprise. Private colleges and universities were the ones that brought our state acclaim as an educational leader and still educated a majority of our state’s high school graduates.  

But Massachusetts is not the state it was forty years ago. Today, two thirds of high school graduates who attend college within the state do so at a public institution. When it comes to the education of our young people as well as our adults who return to college, public higher education plays the leading role.

Along with these changes in higher education, our state’s economy has been evolving. In the early 1970s Massachusetts still had a robust manufacturing sector. In those years only 28 percent of the jobs in the United States required a college degree, and the picture in Massachusetts was not radically different. But in recent times our state’s economy has been driven by knowledge-based enterprises with very different workforce needs. Recent studies predict that by 2018, 63 percent of the jobs in the United States will require some form of postsecondary education—more than double the percentage of forty years ago. And Massachusetts will lead the country in this respect, with 70 percent of our jobs requiring college education.

These twin transformations of our economy and our educational landscape provided the impetus for the Vision Project. This strategic agenda represents the Board of Higher Education’s recognition that, whatever may have been true in the past, Massachusetts’ future will require excellence in public higher education. In this context, we define excellence as framed by the missions of our segments: excellent community colleges dedicated to serving their regions; excellent state universities where the teaching mission is paramount; and an excellent University of Massachusetts as the state’s research university.

The Vision Project is built on the premise that Massachusetts needs the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation and needs to be a national leader in research the drives economic development, and that it is the job of public higher education to make sure these two things are true. Time to Lead establishes a baseline that we will use to track and report our progress to the people of the state. The data tell us two fundamental things: first, that good work is occurring all across our public campuses; and second, that we have work to do to achieve our aspirations in these areas:

  • College Participation
    • Massachusetts is already a national leader in the percentage of high school graduates who attend college. But far too many of these high school graduates—about a third of those who attend a public college or university—are not ready for college-level work when they arrive as freshmen.
  • College Completion and Student Success
    • Every one of our segments is performing above the national average, though not yet national leaders in this area.
  • Student Learning
    • Time to Lead uses the results of professional licensure exams and graduate school admissions tests to gauge learning. The picture is mixed; in some areas we are above average and in some areas below that mark. We seek more robust measures of what our students learn and are able to do; to that end, Massachusetts is leading a national conversation on how to build an interstate system to compare student learning outcomes.
  • Workforce Alignment
    • This is a difficult area to measure precisely, but our data show that we will not achieve the number of college-educated workers our state needs by 2020 without significant increases in the numbers of graduates. We are also under-producing in high need fields like STEM, health care, and finance at both the associate’s and bachelor’s degree level.
  • Preparing Citizens
    • Massachusetts is proud to be the first state in the nation to make the preparation of citizens a statewide goal to be tracked in future years along with other performance measures.
  • Closing Achievements Gaps
    • With respect to every one of the educational outcomes we are tracking there are significant gaps across race, ethnicity, and income. One area of exception is in the status of our students after graduation. Roughly equal proportions of white students and students of color are either employed or continuing their studies one year after they receive their degrees.
  • Research
    • The data show steady progress by the University of Massachusetts in increasing R&D expenditures and licensing income over the past six years.

Time to Lead tells a story of solid achievement, of a system that is in some areas delivering above average results despite below-average state support (Massachusetts ranks 30th in funding per FTE; Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed an ambitious plan to increase funding for the system.)

We in public higher education know we can’t achieve national leadership by ourselves. We are working closely with our K-12 colleagues to provide students with an integrated system of educational opportunities. We seek active collaboration with the business community, continuing assistance from the philanthropic community, and, of course, an active partnership with colleagues in state government.

The work of higher education is difficult but it is also glorious. We feel privileged to be serving the people of Massachusetts. Together we aspire to produce the best educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. I am confident we can achieve that goal.

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