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New report says underfunding community colleges is costing Massachusetts millions

Two wings of a concrete complex meet in a quad.
State of Massachusetts
The campus of Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Nonpartisan public policy think tank Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or "MassINC," has released a new report arguing that the state is leaving millions on the table by not ensuring that all community college students graduate. Examining the class of 2010, MassINC’s findings show that if every student had completed a certificate or degree, Massachusetts would have made $165 million. WAMC spoke with MassINC research director Ben Forman about the report, which concludes the state needs to invest more in public education.

FORMAN: This builds on a study we did last year that looked at how students who attend community colleges do in the labor market, how much more often they're employed, and how much more they make each year as a result of going to community college. And we were able to track students and look at their individual characteristics so we can actually look at the value added the community college provided. And you can tell how much more they earn, because they went. It's kind of an apples to apples comparison so you can really distill the value added of the higher education, college studies. That's what we started with, with this. And then we actually went looked at a whole class of students, how much we spent on all those students, how many of those students completed. And then when you look at those completion rates and the state support, both in terms of operating costs for the colleges and financial aid, how much return you're getting for the taxpayer on that higher education investment.

WAMC: So from there, break it down for us- Walk us through the conclusion that follows, that better funding community colleges will actually increase revenues for the state.

Well, it's pretty clear. Every community college graduate is producing about $25,000 in fiscal benefits for the state over their lifetimes. They were only spending about $12,000 on each of those students education. So there's a big return for the taxpayer when students complete and earn those degrees. The problem is, the majority of community college students don't earn their degree and don't generate that kind of additional tax revenue for the state. So it's clear that up to a certain threshold, it's worth spending more to get a completion and more return for the taxpayer. And that's the point we make, there's many things that we know how to do that increase community college completion that are well above a breakeven price point for the state. So we should be doing more of those things to ensure that more students have success. In the long run, they generate more fiscal benefits for our state budget,

Are there particular areas where a deficit is obvious in ways that community colleges are underfunded?

Well, I mean, the clearest is in student support, making sure that students have as much help as they need with advising, figuring out how college works, how they apply for financial aid, what majors are going to be most beneficial to them in terms of the jobs that are available today, what courses they need to take to complete those majors. There's lots of evidence that doing more of those things leads to more success and better labor market outcomes for students.

When it comes to translating this into some sort of legislative advice or suggestion for the commonwealth, is there a clear method that MassINC sees to rectify that funding imbalance?

Well, you know, I think the whole point of this study is there's some things you can do in terms of community colleges that work and pay off for taxpayers and for students, and there are other things that don't work so well. We've heard lots of discussion over the past year about free community college for all students. We know that's not likely to be a high return investment for the taxpayers. It's going to bring more students in to under resourced institutions and not help more of them have success. Other things we're doing in doing well, like early college, introducing students to higher education early in their high school career so they know how to prepare themselves for it, they get a taste of college classes with a lot of structured support- That pays off with very large returns for taxpayers and some of the other targeted supports for community college students that helped them get through that the state is doing as well. So the report sort of shows why those kinds of investments are high return for taxpayers, why others might not be such a great deal. But more importantly, I think, above all, it shows how we should be using data nowadays to figure out what's cost effective. We have better information than we've ever had before, and we can use that information to inform what kinds of things we're going to do to try and ensure that more students have success in college and are more prepared for the jobs of today.

The report also identifies some equity issues inherent to underfunded community colleges. Can you walk us through the findings of the report along those lines?

It's our most underserved students who are going to community colleges, and then we're under resourcing those institutions. So that right there is a concern from an equity standpoint. Institutions that are serving the students with the greatest need have the least amount of resources to do it. The findings show that community colleges can provide a lot of upward economic opportunity for students, but we’ve got to make sure that they're doing all the things they need to be doing in order to make that possible. People recognize that most of our low income students and students of color are pursuing higher education through community colleges. Those are the students that were by far the most disrupted in their aspirations by the pandemic. So when we try and correct course and make sure that in the future those students have opportunities that are going to be rewarding for them, this is the kind of work we need to do to make the smart investments and make sure that we're giving those students things that are going to be beneficial.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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