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Testimony of Richard Freeland

Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland delivered the following testimony on Thursday, February 23, 2012, at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Committees on Ways & Means held at UMass Amherst:

The Board of Higher Education framed our FY13 budget request as the third phase of our efforts to focus the energies of public higher education on the five educational goals of the Vision Project. As you know, the educational “vision” that is the foundation of the Vision Project is that Massachusetts must have the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. It is the educational level of our citizenry that makes businesses want to come here, home-grown businesses want to stay here and investors want to invest here. Job one for public higher education is to nurture our state’s most vital asset—the brainpower of our people.

We are extremely grateful to the Governor for the support he is recommending in the FY13 budget for our work. We are particularly appreciative of his efforts to maintain scholarship support for our students, although this is an area where we could put even more dollars to good use. The sad truth is that the cost of attending our public institutions has been rising much too fast and the purchasing power of the scholarships we award has declined dramatically. We should all be concerned that some of those whom we most want to serve will find it impossible to enroll.

We also welcome the Governor’s support for our work in STEM education, dual enrollment programming, foster care and adopted fee waivers, and for the department’s modest administrative budget. All these recommendations serve our students well and will help us make progress toward the position of national educational leadership that is the goal of the Vision Project. I want to express particular appreciation for the Governor’s recommendation regarding funding for the new union contracts. These dollars are indispensable to keep our state universities and community colleges operating at high levels of quality and to minimize increases in charges to our students.

The proposed FY13 budget continues an innovative feature of last year’s appropriation to which I wish to draw particular attention. I am referring to the Performance Incentive Fund, recommended last year by the Governor and supported by the Legislature, which allowed the Department of Higher Education to distribute $2.5 million to 18 public campuses to implement new initiatives to advance Vision Project goals or to scale up proven programs that have been constrained by tight budgets.

The dollars provided through the Performance Incentive Fund demonstrate that linking the allocation of state dollars to progress on educational outcomes can help keep our system of public higher education focused on critical statewide priorities. During the current academic years these funds are being used to launch academic boot camps to improve college readiness for young people and to redesign STEM curricula to increase student interest in these vital fields and to create clear maps to guide students through their educational work toward rewarding careers. The Performance Incentive fund is a major success story. I urge your continued support of this initiative in FY13.

I have worked in higher education in Massachusetts for over four decades. Most of that time has been in the public sector. My experience has left me worried that the presence in our state of so many distinguished private institutions has kept us from recognizing the importance of excellence among our public colleges and universities. Maybe fifty years ago, when Massachusetts still had an industrial economy, we could afford such attitudes. We can afford them no longer. Massachusetts needs a first-class system of public higher education. These campuses educate two thirds of the young people who grow up in this state and remain here for college. These students are our future workforce and our future citizenry. You can’t give them first-class higher education without investment. The Governor’s budget points us in that direction. The Vision Project points us in that direction. I know you know this. I have appreciated the support the Legislature has given to our state universities and community colleges, and to the Department of Higher Education, during my time as Commissioner. But we all know we have more work to do.