Improving Massachusetts Public Higher Education

For most seniors applying to college this fall, they’ll be applying to schools based on the three general categories.  They’ll be applying to schools that they consider to be a “reach” (their GPA/test scores may not fit with the school’s averages), the schools that are a good fit for them, and the schools that they consider to be “safeties.”  Chances are most students from Massachusetts will have one or more of the state’s 29 public community colleges, state universities, or a University of Massachusetts campus on their list of safety schools.  Why is this?  How is it that in Massachusetts we have some of the best private higher education institutions in the world, but when it comes to our public institutions, most people view them as mediocre or sub-par? 

            Last week, I had the special privilege to have dinner with UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert C. Holub.  The Chancellor asked us how we can make high school students make UMass their first choice rather than their back-up.  Rather than a student saying “I guess I’m settling on UMass,” the goal is to have them say “UMass is my first choice because…”  For a lot of students UMass is their top choice, but for many it’s also their last resort or alternative.  Today, any high school guidance counselor will tell you that UMass and other state universities are no longer the safety schools that they long have been considered.  One of my floor mates told me that three of her friends from high school long considered UMass to be their safety school and thought that they would have no problem getting in.  None of them ended up getting in because they didn’t take our state university system seriously. Most consider UMass and other state universities to be “party schools,” but from what I’ve seen, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

            Recently, the nine state colleges became state universities.  Prior to Massachusetts upgrading its state college system to state universities, 40 other states across the country had long ago established state university systems.  I think part of the problem is that we focus too much on the fantastic private schools in this state and we forget about our thriving public schools.  UMass is now among the top research universities in New England.  It was also recently ranked in the top 50 universities in the world by the London TimesSmart Money Magazine also recently ranked UMass Amherst third, just behind Harvard and Yale, for the best overall value of education and for the overall benefits that a UMass education will provide students in life after graduation.  This year’s freshman class had an average high school GPA of 3.8 and had the highest SAT scores in the university’s history.   Our other state universities are experiencing similar recognition for their efforts to put our state’s public higher education system on the map.  So, when you’re getting ready to apply to schools, don’t just think that you have to spend $50,000 a year to get a quality education, because our state universities are now becoming equally competitive with our private schools.

            I told the Chancellor how impressed I was all of the construction that is going on at UMass.  He told me that if a university doesn’t have any construction going on, then it’s not progressing.  New green rain gardens are being developed all over campus.  Last week, a ground breaking ceremony was held for the new $156.5 million Laboratory Science building that’s slated to open fall 2012.  It was also announced that a new $85 million Academic Classroom Building will open in January 2014 and will feature state of the art Journalism and communications equipment and classrooms.  Last year, a brand new recreation center and Integrated Sciences Building opened.  The new Minuteman Marching Band Building, which will be certified as green building, is scheduled to open this spring and will house one of the premier marching bands in the country.  There’s also a rumor that a new residential area may be constructed in the next few years.  The UMass Medical School in Worcester is also constructing a new research facility.  Therefore, it’s safe to say that our state universities are moving forward.

         The Chancellor also told us about the state universities’ plan, called the “Vision Project,” which is a project geared towards improving the reputation of our state universities.  According to mass.edu, the project’s goal is to “produce the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation” and to “be a national leader in research that drives economic development.”  As the state continues to try to make cuts to public higher education, university leaders are working to see that our public universities continue to thrive as the reputation differences between public and private universities in Massachusetts slowly become obsolete.

This column was origninally written for publication in the Billerica Minuteman, the local newspaper for Billerica, MA.  Please visit the Minuteman’s web site at www.wickedlocalbillerica.com

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