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A shift in state college grants

Funds to reward schools on student achievement

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / September 6, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick is expected to announce today that for the first time in decades, Massachusetts is awarding some money to public colleges and universities based on their plans to boost academic performance, rather than on how many students they enroll.

The money will go mostly to schools that proposed strategies to raise graduation rates, strengthen science instruction and career development, and close achievement gaps among minorities.

The grants are relatively modest - $2.5 million in total, taken from the 2012 state budget finalized in July - but they signal an important shift in the state’s approach to higher education funding. Massachusetts officials’ campaign to make colleges more accountable mirrors recent ideas that have swept elementary, middle, and high schools.

“This is a sea change in the way we think about higher education funding and a harbinger of important changes to come,’’ said Paul Reville, secretary of education, comparing the competition to the federal Race to the Top contest for states reforming their public school systems.

Many colleges have long resisted accountability reforms, arguing that because student populations and missions are so varied, it is difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

“In K through 12, you usually have most students taking the same program from school to school - so you have algebra offered in Boston and Lawrence and Wellesley and Weston. But in higher ed, not everyone’s even taking math,’’ Reville said. “That makes it harder to compare institutions.’’

On the other hand, he said, “Just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we can’t measure it.’’

To award the new grants - the first distributed under the Vision Project, the Department of Education’s master plan for colleges and universities - Richard Freeland, higher education commissioner, appointed a panel of five specialists from outside Massachusetts. “We didn’t want anyone involved who might in any way be perceived as having an interest in the outcome,’’ said Freeland, the former president of Northeastern University.

The panel solicited extensive proposals from all 29 state schools, then judged each based on 10 criteria, such as how innovative the plans were and how much of their own money the schools could contribute.

Freeland accepted most of the panel’s suggestions. “Easily 90 percent, maybe more like 95 percent of the dollars are going exactly where they recommended,’’ he said. “There were a couple of instances where I tweaked around the edges, but that’s only because I knew things they couldn’t possibly have known.’’

Eight of the state’s 13 schools that offer four-year undergraduate degrees - including three of the University of Massachusetts campuses - will receive a total of about $1.1 million.

“I was very, very pleased,’’ said Bob Caret, president of the UMass system. “You’d love to get all of them funded, but to get three funded in the first wave is good.’’

Caret said the two UMass proposals that did not receive awards - from the Amherst flagship campus and the medical school - focused on scientific research and technology transfer. “The panel really zeroed in on the proposals that were aimed at undergraduate students and the fundamentals of higher education,’’ he said. “I was surprised at that a bit, but also pleased with it.’’

“If I take off my president’s hat and put on my taxpayer’s hat,’’ he said, “we can’t afford to approach funding for higher ed the way we’ve traditionally done it.’’

The largest grant, $233,417, will go to five projects at Worcester State University. Freeland said he was especially impressed by an initiative that sends college students into the Latino community to work as teachers’ aides. The program is 10 years old, but Vision Project money will give it a shot in the arm.

Ten of the state’s two-year colleges will receive a total of nearly $1.4 million. Many of their proposals aim at improving science and math education.

“That is a priority of the governor’s,’’ Reville said. “There are some fields like computer programming where the demand for labor exceeds the supply. We want to address that.’’

Gail Carberry, president of Quinsigamond Community College, which will receive $180,471, said the school had focused on math for years. “A lot of our students were skating through their senior year in high school with no math and getting rusty,’’ she said. “So we started boot camps. We tested the students going in, we tested them going out, and many of them improved. Some of them jumped up as much as two levels in six weeks.’’

Another grant will go to North Shore Community College. The school has developed maps, modeled on the Washington, D.C., subway system, that illustrate the courses and tests students need to take in order to pursue specific careers. Freeland said the maps were a good example of how schools could align their programming with the state’s workforce needs.

Sixteen of the eighteen winning schools are trying to improve graduation rates. “The community colleges were especially focused on the issue. I think that’s why they did well in the competition,’’ said Stan Jones, one of the five judges and president of the national nonprofit Complete College America. “They could have chosen not to focus on completion, but this is an issue whose time has come.’’

Massachusetts excels in getting four-year graduates through college - 69 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees finish within six years, the highest rate in the nation - but only 20 percent of students seeking associate’s degrees earn them within three years, which ranks the state 40th nationally.

Improving that ranking could have a host of economic and social benefits, said Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation, which underwrites several college-completion programs.

“If you can get someone up that ladder, a host of seemingly intractable problems go away,’’ he said. “Those kids by and large will not be incarcerated, will not do drugs, will not be big consumers of federal- and state-funded services. They will participate in their communities and vote at much higher levels.’’

It’s somewhat unclear how policymakers can best encourage students to finish their degrees. “We truly do not have a research base,’’ said Mark Schneider of the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, who studies the issue. “What we know about what works for completion and retention is almost an empty playbook.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at mary_carmichael.