The mass sector faces strong headwinds

MASSACHUSETTS famously boasts to live according to your mind. While other regions claim better year-round weather as an attraction, or natural resources or an industrial base as an attraction, the Commonwealth sees a surplus of intelligence as its comparative advantage.

This has made the last few decades a golden age in Massachusetts, as the global knowledge economy has richly rewarded places with economies built on the foundation of a robust higher education sector. But that also means that the rocky road ahead for higher education will pose a far greater threat to Massachusetts than to other states.

The fate of higher education, good or bad, “is more pronounced here than in any other state,” said Doug Howgate, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, during a recent presentation and panel discussion convened by the organization on the economic impact of higher education in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has the highest share of adults with a bachelor's degree of any state — nearly 46 percent — and employment in Massachusetts' higher education sector accounts for a larger share of total wages than in any state except Rhode Island.

The decline in the country's college population is seen as a serious threat to the sector. “We will have an ever-shrinking young population in this country and that poses an existential threat to higher education,” said Howgate, summarizing the theme. But Howgate said it's a more nuanced story, and as his presentation made clear, it's more complicated than just changes in population.

In the 60-year period from 1952 to 2012, for example, the U.S. population under age 20 grew by 51 percent, but college enrollment increased by nearly 900 percent, or 16 times as much, Howgate said. In other words, it's not just the changes in the college-age population that matter, but, as Howgate put it, “the batting average that higher education creates to convince students that higher education is the way to go.” place for them.” That batting average skyrocketed in the second half of the 20th century, and Howgate said maintaining – or increasing – that average was the goal of “long-term economic policy.”

Current data already indicates a certain deviation. From 2010 to 2021, the number of students under 20 in the state fell by 4 percent, and in higher education the decline in enrollment was even greater at 6.1 percent.

Part of the explanation is a nationwide decline in confidence in higher education. According to Gallup results shared during the session by Evan Horowtiz of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, there was a sharp decline in trust in higher education from 2015 to 2023, a trend that is independent of party affiliation, gender and education level what was observed was performance or age.

This trend coincides with a decline in interest in higher education among high school graduates in Massachusetts, which is more pronounced in communities of color, which make up a growing share of the state's population.

Annual data collected by the state Department of Education on high school seniors' plans shows a decline in the share of those planning to enroll in high school in the next year from 80 percent to just over between 2016 and 2023 70 percent. In Lawrence, however, where 94 percent of students are of Hispanic descent, the proportion of graduates planning to go to college fell much more sharply, from just over 70 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2023.

From 2010 to 2022, Howgate said, the state's white population fell by 327,000, while the black and Hispanic populations increased by almost the same amount – by 332,000 residents. “If we want to continue to sustain and grow our higher education sector and connect Massachusetts residents to the Massachusetts economy, what happens in Lawrence is critically important,” he said.

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, said addressing the huge demographic disparities in college graduation rates must be a top priority. “We have a 30-point difference in your likelihood of earning a college degree within six years of graduation in this state [from high school] if you do not have a low income or [are] “If you're white or Asian than if you're low-income, black or Latino,” Gabrieli said. “This should be completely unacceptable to all of us.”

The good news, he said, is that the state is taking steps that could meaningfully reduce that gap. Gabrieli emphasized the state's commitment to early college programs, which allow students to take college courses — and earn credits toward a degree — while still in high school. He said there is evidence that early college participation leads to 15 to 16 percentage points higher rates of college enrollment and persistence after high school.

“That’s huge,” he said, calling it one of the largest effect sizes of any known education strategy.

Anna Harden

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