Point missed on community colleges

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The solution to a real or perceived problem in public affairs is too often the creation of another board or layer of bureaucracy. The Boston Foundation, in a report released Friday, argues that a strong governing board will shape up the state's community colleges, but not every community college needs shaping up and not every community college is identical. What they do all require is more assistance from those who control the state's purse strings.

Paul Grogan, the foundation's chief executive officer, told The Boston Globe he would "have a bunker ready" in anticipation of the reaction to the report, and we hope he is already in it. The recommendations may be well-intentioned, but the foundation doesn't appear to have a thorough understanding of the role of the state's 15 community colleges.

Remarkably, the report criticizes community colleges for attempting to be "all things to all people." Actually, that is the mission of a community college at its essence. Berkshire Community College offers a degree program for those who want to go on to a four-year college and it also serves residents who want to improve their education, perhaps to qualify for jobs in the local market, but aren't able to or interested in pursuing a degree. Along these lines, the report expresses displeasure with the low graduation rates of state community colleges, and while every college would like to increase that rate, the number of students who aren't there to graduate lowers the percentage and creates a false impression that there is a high drop-out rate. Community colleges, which accept all applicants, can't be judged by the same standards as four-year schools.

Massachusetts community colleges were once governed by a central board but it was discontinued 20 years ago because it was counterproductive. Memories are short, however. In recalling the failed board, Brenda Mercomes, vice president for academic affairs at Roxbury Community College, told The Globe that "We have to be allowed to have our own identities." Indeed, BCC isn't RCC. They are from much different communities and serve much different constituencies.

If Beacon Hill is unhappy with community colleges they should stop underfunding them and other public colleges. Massachusetts was 45th in the nation in appropriations for public higher education in fiscal 2009, and while that ranking may have improved marginally, a state that brags about its appreciation of education must do far better in paying for teachers and improving infrastructure. Funding that meets the average of the 50 states would do more for community colleges than another layer of bureaucracy.



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