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WEB EXCLUSIVE | DERRICK Z. JACKSON

In testimony, college presidents' city a shaky future

THE ERUDITENESS of New England's college presidents did not mask their growing tone of concern as they testified on the future of higher education before the federal commission that came to Boston yesterday for a public hearing.

President Susan Hockfield of Massachusetts Institute of Technology led off the proceedings at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel by saying that in order to maintain democracy and compete in a global economy, the nation needs to expand scholarship aid to expand access to college. But she noted how Congress is cutting more than $12 billion from the federal budget for student loans over the next five years and has frozen the maximum for a Pell grant for the last four years. On top of that, she expressed her fear that without proper support of math and science in the nation's public schools, "we will be racing to make up in higher ed what is not being done" in K-12.

UMass President Jack Wilson talked about trying to provide a quality education even as the state's share of the system's $2 billion budget has declined from 40 percent to 20 percent. He said that UMass, like many of the nation's public college systems, is moving from an "everyday, low-pricing" model for students to a "moderate-cost, high-aid" model. Wilson said he wishes that the public would take on a larger share of the burden, but lamented that in the current atmosphere, "that's not likely."

The most blunt was President Mary Fifield of Bunker Hill Community College. That is no surprise as community colleges try to deliver the American dream to the least economically and politically insulated of Americans and immigrants (even as a school like Bunker Hill has 7,800 students on its rolls, which is more than the number of undergraduates at Harvard). She said that among the echelons of higher learning, community colleges are at the fulcrum of equal opportunity.

In her prepared remarks, Fifield said that the freeze of Pell grants and growing exclusivity of grants targeted to students who go to the best high schools for math and science, which tend not to be in inner cities or rural districts, "serve as disincentives to low-income students." Fifield reminded the commission that most low-income students do not have the option of selecting their high schools and thus would silently be cut off from targeted grants, while "merit-based financial aid programs appear to help students who need financial assistance least."

Further, she noted how the Bush administration wants to cut pre-college preparation programs such as Upward Bound. She flatly called for a rise in Pell grants and the continuance of programs like Upward Bound. She said the country's politicians need to stop blocking undocumented im- migrants from aspiring to higher education, especially those who have lived most of their lives in the United States and have already been educated in America's public schools.

"Prohibiting their access to public higher education results in a waste of talent and exacerbates the already alarming shortage of skilled workers in our nation," Fifield said.

Speaking in a hallway before giving her remarks, Fifield said the discussion on access is at a critical stage. She mentioned the distressing statistics about black men in a Page One story in yesterday's New York Times. Half of black men in their 20s who did not attend college are jobless, compared with 21 percent of such white men and 19 percent of such Latino men.

"If this country can't see that it has a responsibility to make sure that anyone who wants to go to college can do so, then I wonder what this country is all about," Fifield said.

Fifield said the political rhetoric about the value of an education seems distant to her. She said Bunker Hill lost 22 percent of its funding over a four-year period beginning in 2001. She said she has recently gotten back 5 or 6 percent.

"They (politicians) know community colleges exist, but they do not yet see them as an integral part of this nation's success," Fifield said. "It's going to take stable state funding with federal incentives to keep the funding. We need to make sure that high school students can do dual enrollments in community colleges so they can get a taste of higher education. ... It would seem to me that educating everyone and making sure we have the grants for them just makes common sense."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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