By Anthony Britt
On Wednesday January 23rd, the Boston Chapters of Civic Series (@CivicSeries) and Young Education Professionals Boston collaborated to bring together knowledgeable panelists from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (@MassBudget), Northeastern’s Level (@northeastern) and Year Up (@YearUpBoston) to discuss the state of higher education, its escalating costs, and the need for strategic reform and advocacy.
The night kicked off with a presentation by Jeremy Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst at MassBudget, who shared an overview of recent research from MassBudget’s “Educated and Encumbered” report. Jeremy highlighted that despite the importance of higher education as a factor in a strong state economy and success in Massachusetts, a lack of sufficient public investment has resulted in an increased burden of tuition and debt for students and their families – threatening to jeopardize the upward mobility and prosperity of those who could benefit most. Moreover, if the state sees fewer residents attending public institutions and staying to live and work in Massachusetts, this will be a drag on our economy and civic institutions in the long run. For more detail and charts on the major local and national trends since 2000, we encourage you to check out their webpage and the slide deck from the event. In the words of Jeremy Thompson: “The question isn’t: ‘why is it so expensive?’ [The question is] ‘does it have to be?’ And in the case of Massachusetts, I would say no.”
Following introductions from the moderator, YEP Board Member and education researcher Jennifer Ash, Jeremy was joined on stage by Eliza Spang, General Manager at Level, and Fabrice Clerphon, Internship Services Manager at Year Up. In building upon the framework of some reasons for the rising costs of higher education, the panelists discussed why rising costs are a significant problem, the broader impact on the economy and community, and alternatives to traditional higher education models and pathways.
Eliza and Fabrice cited both personal and professional experiences while speaking to the need for earlier exposure to career exploration as well as transferable credits for prior learning outside of regimented degree program structures. Each panelist spoke to the disparate impact on lower income families – a poignant example of this dynamic is the rising need for supportive services at community colleges related to hunger, housing, and child care. In reference to Level’s innovative model, Eliza emphasized making clear connections to viable careers, which was a point underscored by Fabrice’s experience as a participant in Year Up prior to joining their staff. All panelists also offered perspective on up-credentialing, which is a phenomenon where employers increase the academic expectations for jobs that might not necessarily require them when the job market is not tight; we are seeing a relaxing of this process somewhat during this period of relatively low unemployment.
Our attendees had an impressive list of terrific questions throughout the night. Questions emphasized tradeoffs such as the apparent tension between learner and faculty needs and preferences as well as the issues inherent to Federal subsidies such as Pell Grants (Extra Credit: check out arguments on either side of the Bennett Hypothesis). All were in agreement that while college access remains an important objective, one of the more pressing concerns is ensuring retention among students who are enrolling in post-secondary programs through supportive transitional coaching, financial aid assistance, and other interventions. Our panelists spotlighted promising programs and interventions ranging from Bunker Hill to the Harvard Extension School to CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).
Finally, the importance of promoting a culture of life-long learning was recognized as vital in a 21st Century context, and we applaud those in attendance for taking time out of a brisk winter night to join us and expand their knowledge for such a significant issue.
We are grateful to the Cambridge Public Library for their terrific event space!