Report finds fewer students heading to college; pols call for more investment

By SYDNEY KO

For the Gazette

Published: 02-09-2023 7:00 PM

BOSTON — The number of students choosing to attend post-secondary education in Massachusetts has dropped significantly in recent years, a trend that started nearly a decade ago and has only been exacerbated during the pandemic.

“The pandemic’s impact and the rising costs of a college education may have contributed to the decrease in 2- and 4-year college enrollment and the associated increase in students pursuing career and other pathways,” according to a recent report published by the Rennie Center on Education Research & Policy, a Boston nonpartisan education think tank.

The report, “Condition of Education in the Commonwealth 2023,” found enrollment in Massachusetts community colleges has declined by nearly 23,000 students, or 10.4%, since 2015. UMass and the state university system suffered a significant drop of more than 50,000 students in 2021 alone, though those figures have since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the report found.

The report also highlights the increasing diversification of high school graduates’ planned next steps. Some of these can be attributed to programs such as early college, innovation pathways and internship opportunities.

“Perhaps most notably, the percentage of students reporting that they plan to work directly after high school graduation has risen more than 5% since 2019,” the report states. This trend is also revealed in data released by the state last fall, which showed the overall rate of Massachusetts high school graduates who immediately enroll in college has dropped nearly 10 percentage points over the past five years, to 60%.

Two politicians who represent a swath of communities throughout western Massachusetts, Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Sen. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said the figures are even more reason to ramp up investment in public education in the wake of the pandemic.

Since 2021, Comerford and Mark have co-sponsored a legislative proposal called the Cherish Act, which aims to address what supporters say is chronic underfunding of public education in Massachusetts.

In addition to funneling more money into public higher education, the bill, currently in its third session at the State House since its first filing, also prohibits tuition or fee increases for students enrolled at public colleges and universities between now and 2026, as long as the state meets its funding commitment each year during the implementation period.

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Comerford said there is a “moral mandate” to address public funding in education after seeing the “economic devastation” the pandemic has caused. Western Massachusetts was disproportionately hit economically during the height of the outbreak and is still recovering after the 2008 recession, she said.

“There was a lot of economic slowdown and western Mass. struggled with population loss, rural challenges, lack of access to a robust public transit,” Comerford said. “But what we have in great numbers are institutions of higher education.”

In the last two decades, Massachusetts experienced a 20% funding cut for public higher education per student.

Additionally, the state ranks 37th in providing financial aid to students, according to another recent report published by the Hildreth Institute, a Boston organization that focuses on equity in higher education. That report revealed students in the commonwealth have faced a 47% cut in financial aid over the past two decades.

“We haven’t kept pace — now we’re near bottom in our investment in public higher education,” Comerford said. “Every dollar we put into public higher education, college or university will return many times over in ... robust economic activity.”

Comerford noted that while the voter-approved Fair Share Amendment designates funds go to education and transportation, it does not stipulate how the funds will be allocated. This law, often called the “millionaires tax,” takes effect on March 1 and adds a 4% surtax on incomes over $1 million.

“People like the Senate president have come out and said, (the surtax) will not supplant current funding — it will supplement,” Comerford said. This essentially means that the funds generated from the surtax will not replace public education funding, but instead “raise the bar.”

Mark said public colleges often get overlooked in a state that is well regarded for its private institutions such as Harvard and MIT.

Currently, there are 68 private colleges and universities, 15 community colleges, nine state universities and the five campuses of the University of Massachusetts in the commonwealth.

“We have to make sure people that live within the state and pay taxes have the ability to get a similar high-quality education at a public institution that is available with discounted rates for them,” Mark said.

HCC’s perspective

Mark Hudgik, director of admissions and new student onboarding at Holyoke Community College, said the college has felt the increase in the number of students choosing to pursue career and other pathways after high school. The college has seen a 25-35% decline in enrollment since the fall of 2019.

Hudgik said the college has been partnering with other community agencies and schools in western Massachusetts to identify students who are opting out in the highest percentages. He added that areas including Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee are the most impacted by the pandemic and showed the largest decline in enrollment rate.

However, the decline in enrollment started long before the pandemic. Hudgik said there was a surge in enrollments in 2010, which he observed was related to the 2008 recession. During this period, public higher education sectors retained sufficient funding that allowed young people to go to college. After the 2010 surge, enrollment at Holyoke Community College has continued to decline.

Hudgik said this census is concerning from a community standpoint. As fewer people engage in education, the smaller the skilled workforce will become, which in turn impact the quality of life for all.

“We’re not really competing with any other region or any other sector of higher education — we’re really competing with the choice not to go to college,” he said.

Despite low enrollment in recent years, Hudgik said there has been a slight return to normalcy this year, as HCC found ways to meet students’ expectations by reassessing education.

As elementary and secondary schools across the commonwealth return to in-person studies, the data in the Rennie report reveals a new and growing chronic absenteeism rate — defined as the percentage of students absent from school for 10% or more of the days enrolled — increased from 17% to 27% between 2021 and 2022.

Mark said that when classes had to switch to a remote setting during the height of the pandemic, this region had to deal with many financial and education barriers. He noted that some towns in western Mass. didn’t have access to the internet up until the last few years.

Mark worries that many students who take on a lot of debt to earn their degrees will flock to higher-paying jobs in the city rather than in the more rural parts of western Massachusetts.

“When there’s a financial barrier even to go into community college, or the local state university or UMass, that can really make a difference in what your opportunities are,” Mark said.

Sydney Ko writes for the Gazette as part of the Boston University Statehouse Pro gram.]]>