BOSTON >> When Carlos Santiago, the state's commissioner of higher education, was an assistant professor of economics early in his career, instructors viewed themselves as gatekeepers, often telling students that only a fraction of their peers would make it to graduation.
"We were proud of that," Santiago told lawmakers and staff Wednesday. "That was the gatekeeper. That was what higher education was all about. It was idiotic, but we were really proud of it. It didn't work. It didn't work, and we cannot afford that."
The higher education system has shifted away from that model towards a focus on providing all students the support they need to graduate, at a time when Massachusetts is facing "a bit of a crossroads" because of demographic shifts, Santiago said.
Santiago said there are smaller numbers of "traditional age, college-going students," leading to declining enrollment. At the same time, as the state's population ages, a third of the labor force is projected to retire in coming years. Many of the jobs left open will require at least a bachelor's degree, but the population segments that are growing quickly are in demographic groups that have been "underserved by education in general and higher education particularly," he said.
Speaking during a presentation of a Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy report on the condition of education in Massachusetts, Santiago said that colleges and universities need to provide support to make sure that all admitted students can succeed.
"I've been visiting the campuses across the commonwealth, and one thing that's startled me is the needs of our students," Santiago said. "I've been seeing on our college campuses, our public campuses, homelessness — never seen before, never envisioned, when I was going to be in college, that homelessness was going to be a major issue. All of our campuses have had to open food pantries."
Santiago said that helping the most disadvantaged students and providing needed services will ultimately benefit all students.
The Rennie Center report calls for educators and policymakers to "promote skills for college and career success." Among the skills identified are the ability to set goals, self-motivate, monitor progress, seek help and persist through challenges. Focusing on developing these skills could help improve postsecondary enrollment and completion rates, the report said.
Statistics in the report show a 61 percent six-year graduation rate in the University of Massachusetts system and a 54 percent rate at state universities in 2013. At community colleges that same year, 47 percent of students earned a degree or certificate, completed 30 or more credits or transferred to a four-year institution within six years.
"One of the main shifts we need to have in our conceptual thinking is Massachusetts has made a tremendous investment in thinking about college and career readiness," said Rennie Center executive director Chad d'Entremont. "We need to redefine that to mean college and career success. Getting to college is not enough, and one of the lessons we are learning is that students who perform well academically may still struggle to complete a postsecondary education. We need to focus on success."