SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 4, 2013

Column: Investing in higher education

Dr. Wayne M. Burton
The Salem News

---- — Tears of joy streaked the cheeks of the woman proudly striding toward me as she crossed the stage in Salem State University’s Rockett Arena last May. She joined 1,142 other North Shore Community College students receiving their degrees and certificates, culminating what for many was a long and challenging journey. Her joyful family waited for her at the bottom of the stairs behind me, literally jumping with joy before embracing her to share in the glory of that moment. What struck me after I handed her the degree that she had worked so hard to attain describes the essence of the difference between America’s community colleges and traditional four-year colleges: The celebrants were the graduate’s children and the graduate their mother.

How do I place a value on the increment in her self-respect, the additional skills she acquired to contribute to the workplace, the inspiration she generated in her family and friends? If I cannot, how can I convince others that the return on their investment in public higher education is worth the cost?

In his analysis, “Keep small enterprise growth engine vibrant with tax restraint” (Salem News, Feb. 21), Rob Lutts, chairman of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce and president and chief investment officer of Cabot Money Management Inc., argues that, “Now is not the time to increase business overhead with more tax burdens.” He urges those of us leading public institutions to “Do more with less. Create more efficiency in our operations, be creative in the use of technology and ask more of your current staff.” From my years of service on the board of the North Shore Chamber, two as its chair, I know and have great respect for Rob as an eloquent spokesperson from the business leader point of view.

My perspective is different from Rob’s, though, as president of the institution striving to provide those 20 employees for more than 26.5 million small businesses in the U.S.

In Massachusetts, for example, we know that within five years, 70 percent of the jobs in the commonwealth will require a postsecondary education. We also know that nine out of 10 of our public college graduates will remain in the state. Companies large and small are experiencing shortages in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as health care and finance. In light of the above, what choice does Gov. Deval Patrick have but to propose additional investment in the educational infrastructure, the competitive advantage Massachusetts enjoys that keeps us in the lead on most economic indicators for the U.S. The truth is state and local taxes in Massachusetts have dropped 26 percent since 1977, the biggest decline in any state except Arizona (source: Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center). We can afford to pay a bit more for education and transportation investments that all of us — including business and industry — benefit from. While Mr. Lutts worries about a modest uptick in income taxes, I worry about businesses fleeing the state because they can’t find the skilled workers needed to fill jobs. Brainpower is our most precious asset in the marketplace, essential to economic growth.

I can assure Rob that our colleges have taken all the steps he suggests with regard to becoming as efficient as possible. With our appropriation about the same as it was in 2001, here’s what we produce at NSCC in 2013:

The 1,143 degrees and certificates awarded in 2012 represent a 58 percent increase over the past 10 years;

92 percent of our graduates report being employed in their field of study within the first six months of graduation;

78 percent of our students are successful in six years in that they earn a degree or certificate, transferred, are still enrolled or have earned at least 30 credits;

98 percent of students successfully transfer their credits to NSCC from other Massachusetts community colleges;

94 percent of our students seeking to transfer to four-year colleges and universities do so successfully (source: Board of Higher Education Trend Book & NSCC Graduate Follow Up Survey).

Ultimately, policymakers on Beacon Hill will decide the fate of Gov. Patrick’s proposal for new investment in transportation and educational infrastructure, a proposal criticized by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on national television when he appeared with Patrick last Sunday. His smirk disappeared when the graphic appeared displaying a side-by-side of the results of past Massachusetts investments compared with Louisiana: best-in-the country educational attainment, far-higher average incomes and faster economic recovery.

Is maintaining our leadership worth the investment? Does the return on investment justify the cost? My answer to those questions is a resounding yes. Effective leaders ensure that the most important matters receive the attention they deserve, and that is what Gov. Patrick has done with his bold proposal, the debate over which should engage all perspectives. In the end, this is about the real lives of real students who are from Massachusetts and staying in Massachusetts — our future workforce and citizenry. An investment in their dreams protects the assets and investments of us all.

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Dr. Wayne M. Burton is president of North Shore Community College.