College Success Equals Massachusetts Success

01/02/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Martin T. Meehan

Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Suzanne M. Bump says 50 percent of the jobs that were open last summer required an associate degree or better. Two-thirds of Boston's 2,000 college-bound high-school graduates had not earned a degree seven years later, according to a Boston Private Industry Council study. The U.S. ranks 12th worldwide in 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Meanwhile, our nation faces its worst economic crisis since 1933.

To emerge from the crisis, Americans must learn more, so that we can do more and make more of what everyone needs in a fiercely competitive global economy. Higher-education leaders must do their part by making structural changes to improve student success.

Conditions are far worse now than when I became chancellor of UMass Lowell in 2007. Then, I laid out my view of the landscape as follows: Worldwide competition for talent and resources has never been greater. We are straining the planet's capacity to provide all that is demanded. Only imaginative solutions brought forward by competent people will save us from a grim, endless global struggle between winners and losers. These challenges are best addressed at the highest levels of education, where, historically, the most knowledgeable, far-sighted people have come together. It is more important than ever that we do so.

We need students to get to college and succeed there to ensure that our commonwealth succeeds. We need graduates who have mastered the science and technology required to understand and shape our complex society. We must see the K-16 or even K-17 pathway as a learning continuum. The Lowell public schools, Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell have joined forces for this purpose. We pledged to work with city students throughout their educational journey.

Children in elementary grades should learn from science and math specialists. The one-teacher-for-all-subjects model often means students lose ground in math and science. They then play catch-up or shy away from what they perceive as difficult material.

Science education should be a priority. Too many students attend elementary schools that teach to the math and reading tests. Science should be taught as an extension of children's curiosity about the world with less memorization, and greater focus on exploration and inquiry.

At UMass Lowell, our education program for elementary-school teachers includes science-methods and mathematics-education courses. These classes model how we want students to plan, teach and assess learning. Our long-term mathematics professional-development program with a local school is yielding gains in teacher knowledge and student learning. Our elementary-education courses take would-be teachers into classrooms throughout the region for real-world practice. Elementary and secondary teacher preparation impacts student success in college. In our state, we must support pre-service and in-service teacher content knowledge with systematic ongoing professional development. Building a cadre of teacher-leaders who can observe, plan and assess with their peers is a good first step.

When those K-12 students arrive on campus, we have a moral and professional responsibility to help them graduate. With the daunting cost of higher education, they should expect it. We are seeing the benefits of cohesive learning communities among first-year students in liberal arts and management and making strides integrating commuter students into campus life. When students interact with faculty and their classmates around common materials, classes and activities, their chances for success improve.

Many students need help with college-level math and science. Our mathematics department has organized math boot camps in response -- intensive 30-hour math-immersion programs to be offered during winter break. After passing an exam, student then can take advanced courses in the spring.

The master's degree is increasingly a required professional credential. We are easing the path to advanced degrees through a "Plus One" Program in which students earn an M.A. more efficiently and affordably. Graduates enter the job market more quickly and with a competitive advantage.  

President Obama is promising a national education policy that will stoke the fires of intellectual curiosity, scientific inquiry and creativity across America. With an 8 percent cut in funding for public higher education this year and the prospect of another cut in FY10, public higher education in Massachusetts could look very different next year. Public colleges and UMass offer the only ladder up for many people. And 80 percent of them stay here to live and work after earning degrees. That ladder must remain firmly in place so that our public higher education graduates can carry the commonwealth upward.

Martin T. Meehan is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell.