Investing in higher education is good for students — and the state

Collective action sends a powerful signal that postsecondary education is a viable path to social and economic mobility for everyone

March 23, 2023

By M. Lee Pelton and Pam Eddinger

Earlier this month, Governor Maura Healey’s first budget proposal generated some good news for public higher education — and a lot of hope.

The governor’s budget proposes a four-year tuition and fees freeze at all state universities and allocates funding for the creation of MassReconnect, a program that provides free community college for adults, addressing the critical need for a skilled workforce through affordable higher education. If the state is serious about positioning residents for successful, sustaining careers and meeting the talent needs of employers, however, affordability is just one component of a broader solution that makes college and career success possible for all.

In 2009, The Boston Foundation convened partners at Boston Public Schools, the city of Boston, the local higher education community, and the nonprofit sector to launch Success Boston. The program was our collective response to a call to action from then-Mayor Thomas Menino, after research from Northeastern University and the Boston Private Industry Council found that only about 1 in 3 Boston students who enrolled in college actually earned a degree. A core part of our work has focused on supporting students through transition coaching. A student is paired one-on-one with a coach from a local nonprofit organization; the coach guides the first two years of the student’s transition into postsecondary education, helping them navigate financial aid, academics, work-school balance, career planning, and other issues. For many of us who remember leaning on others while finding our way through college, this would sound sensible. For first-generation college students in an unfamiliar landscape, this was a lifeline.

More than 7,500 Boston students have worked with a Success Boston coach since the initiative began, and new data have validated what we saw to be true: Coaching makes a difference. Boston students from the high school classes of 2015, 2016, and 2017 who had a coach were 21 percent more likely to complete a degree in four years. This holds at both community colleges and four-year universities. It holds true for men and women alike across racial and ethnic groups. Benefits of this program have extended beyond individual students’ success, helping to change culture, processes, and expectations around what student supports should look like for colleges to be truly student ready.

Even as we celebrate the efficacy of coaching as a key lever in student success, we know the issues run much deeper. The disinvestment in public higher education has shown itself in stalled progress. Boston’s postsecondary completion rate increased steadily from 35 percent for the BPS class of 2000 to nearly 54 percent for the BPS class of 2012, but it has stalled at roughly 52 percent since then. We also see persistent gaps by gender and by race. The COVID-19 pandemic and the social and economic fallout in communities of color and communities of poverty no doubt have also added to a troubling decline in the postsecondary enrollment rate — the percentage of students who make the transition from high school to higher education. Just 53 percent of BPS graduates in 2021 started in postsecondary programs in the year after graduation, down from a high of 70 percent in 2017.

Beyond rising tuition, fragmented and insufficient financial aid, and basic needs insecurity, students also encountered barriers in cumbersome or unclear requirements for course taking or transferring, and inequitable access to internships, among others. A deeper understanding of our students and their communities, and a commitment to remove financial and systemic barriers to learning will be necessary to ensure more students succeed in higher education.

We have good reasons to hope. We are encouraged by deep alignment between the state and the city of Boston on the need to dismantle financial barriers to student success. Boston recently announced an expansion of its Tuition-Free Community College Plan, which now covers the costs of attendance and provides stipends for books and transportation to many more Boston residents, including undocumented students and older adults. Coupled with Healey’s proposals to stabilize tuition and fees, increase financial aid, strengthen advising and support through the SUCCESS program, and launch MassReconnect for adults, this collective action sends a powerful signal that postsecondary education is a viable path to social and economic mobility for everyone.

This convergence of higher education investment is good for students and families, eases the workforce crisis for employers, and sets a vibrant economic course for Boston and the Commonwealth. Like transition coaching, they are critical pieces in a larger systems-change process that recognizes the many paths to postsecondary success and the complex obstacles that students face.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Globe on March 23, 2023.