Report: Mass. Community Colleges 'Need Improvement'

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For the second time this week, researchers are calling for change at Massachusetts community colleges. They say the state’s economy depends on it.

The latest call is in a Boston Foundation report released Friday. It uses words like "disjointed" and "inflexible" to describe Massachusetts community colleges. The biggest problem, the report says, is an unclear mission and a lack of alignment among the state's 15 community colleges.

Julian Alssid, with the Workforce Strategy Center, is one of the report's lead researchers. He interviewed dozens of people about the colleges and heard similar complaints from different groups.

"Employers, for example, said it was very hard for them to do business with the colleges and develop programming on any scale,” Alssid said. “We also heard that the colleges and community organizations were almost battling for turf instead of working together, in sync."

According to the report, there must be major systemic reforms before Massachusetts community colleges become economic development engines.

More than 200,000 students attend community college in Massachusetts, and for those who graduate it means an almost doubling of their average annual salary. And despite the economy, almost half of all Massachusetts employers who are hiring can't find workers with the necessary skills. Alssid says rising skill requirements, changing demographics and the economic downtown have created an opportunity for community colleges.

"The ticket to the middle class is industry-recognized post-secondary credentialing,” Alssid said. “So what's needed now is community colleges that can respond to that demand and turn on a dime. So it's an emerging need and it's (needed) now more than ever."

But Alssid's report says there must be major systemic reforms before Massachusetts community colleges become economic development engines. For example, the report recommends working to better prepare students for college and developing ways to measure the colleges' performance.

And of course, it recommends more funding. The report says the average $4,500 annual cost of attending a Massachusetts community college is 59 percent higher than the national average.

Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan said state lawmakers need to think differently about public education.

"We suffer from that unfortunate side effect from having wonderful private universities,” Grogan said.

“Public higher education has never been the priority in Massachusetts that it is in other states, but it must be. The truth is, many of the graduates of private colleges leave the state after they get their education. Almost everybody who graduates from a public college or university stays in Massachusetts. That's the workforce we can rely on."

Earlier this week, another report said the state's community college system is not adequately preparing students for careers in some of the high-demand health care fields.

These reports come amid a national effort to produce an additional 5 million community college graduates in the next decade to meet the country's economic needs.

You can read the full report, below:

This program aired on November 18, 2011.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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