Boston control over GCC?

 

Greenfield Recorder 12/01/2011, Page A01

By JOHN TILTON

Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD — A report released by the Boston Foundation on the role and oversight of community colleges has met resistance in western Massachusetts.

The nonprofit foundation’s report calls for, among other things, stronger central oversight and a refocused mission on work force development for the Bay State’s 15 community colleges.

The report’s recommendation would remove much of the authority from the local boards of trustees and transfer that authority to a central state body, leaving the local trustees with an advisory role.

The Boston Foundation is a community foundation composed of nearly 900 charitable groups. Its report was called “The Case for Community Colleges: Aligning Higher Education and Workforce Needs in Massachusetts.”

However, there has been resistance to the report, especially from community colleges in western Massachusetts that feel they were not adequately represented and decry the report for being Boston-centric.

“There is no data from western Massachusetts in the report,” said Greenfield Community College President Bob Pura. “The demands of a community college must be understood from a community and regional perspective.”

There was once central control of the community colleges, said Pura, but authority has since been transferred back to the communities’ boards of trustees.

“We are on the ground, and we know what the needs of the community are,” said chairman of the GCC board of trustees Timothy Farrell.

Farrell said that GCC is thriving under the current system of community direction, and to make suggestions for broad-stroke changes without consulting the community colleges or businesses of western Massachusetts is misguided.

“If they want to look to a success story, they only need to look to GCC to see how well a community college can function under the current system,” said Farrell.

Pura said removing authority from the board of trustees would result in a disconnect between the direction the state wants to go and the needs of the community.

“Communities know best what community colleges ought to be about,” said Pura.

The report calls for the state to “clarify the mission of community colleges, with a priority on preparing students to meet critical labor market needs.” In general, said Pura, the report calls for narrowing the community colleges’ focus to work force development.

Pura and Farrell both agree that as the single point of access to higher education in the community, GCC’s mission should be comprehensive.

“We have a strong professional program geared specifically toward work force development,” said Pura. “In addition, we have a very strong tradition of helping students transfer to four-year colleges.”

Pura has touted this transfer tradition before. In the class of 2009, 36 percent of GCC students transferred to a four-year-college after their first year at GCC, and approximately 50 percent of all graduates move on to a four year college, said Pura.

This is a trend that seems to continue to be growing as the cost of higher education increases. A bachelor’s degree can cost as much as $200,000, said Pura. Taking courses at GCC, which are less expensive, and transferring the credits to a four-year college can reduce that cost burden.

“This college provides a wonderful entry way to the baccalaureate,” said Pura. “This study is insensitive to the needs of the working families in our community who find the cost of higher education spiraling out of control.” Farrell said the report neglects the differences between the eastern and western portions of the state. In Franklin County, GCC is viewed as the affordable entryway to a fouryear degree, he said.

“To view community colleges from purely work force development is missing the mark on why community colleges were established and the purpose they are serving today,” said Farrell.

Pura believes the report does make some valid points that need a voice on Beacon Hill.

A central argument to the report is that community colleges can provide an educated citizenry and work force for the 21st century and need more sustainable funding.

However, state funding continues to drop.

In 1978, state funding to community colleges hovered around 95 percent but has since dropped to approximately 45 percent of GCC’s budget, said Pura, which is lower than the estimated 67 percent cited by the report.

The report itself will not implement any changes. However, the foundation has enough political clout that the report is likely to be the topic of discussion today in the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

“This study recognizes the importance of community colleges in the work force and the significant need for funding that has been declining for the past 20 years,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, who is a member of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

However, Mark disagrees with the report’s call for more central oversight.

“Anytime you centralize power, more people in western Massachusetts get forgotten, so I don’t see how this would be a good idea at all.”

Mark said there has been no proposal in the Legislature to change the current system.

“We want to work toward a balanced model where we can work hand-in-hand,” said Pura. “I think that is an achievable goal.”

In a recent interview, Gov. Deval Patrick said the goal of higher education is to prepare for life-long success in a high skill, high knowledge economy as a life-long learner, said Pura.

“This study does not lead the pathway to that end,” said Pura. “This college does.”

You can reach John Tilton at: jtilton@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264