Second of two columns
(Read Part 1)
NEITHER OF MY PARENTS went to college. Nor did theirs. There is something about being the first in your family to attend a university that can make the experience precious beyond measure. Especially when, as was true in my case, you cannot afford the price. My education was financed through loans, work-study jobs, and the generosity of the trustees of George Washington University, who offered me an undergraduate scholarship for which I am abidingly grateful.
When I finished high school, college was put within my reach. As a matter of pride and policy, Massachusetts should ensure that it is put within the reach of every high school graduate who is ready to earn a college degree.
What's the best way to achieve that goal? For the state to build a network of government-run campuses, where tuition is kept low because taxpayers pay most of the costs? That is the formula Massachusetts has tried. The result is a bloated empire of state institutions that few respect.
There's a better formula.
Access to higher education is important, but access to food is a matter of life and death. Yet nobody believes that Beacon Hill ought to build a chain of grocery stores to keep poor people from starving. Far more sensible to simply put a cash equivalent -- food stamps -- into the hands of the needy and let them buy their groceries anywhere they like. The problem for the poor isn't a shortage of places that sell food. The problem is a shortage of money.
What is true of nourishment for the body is true of nourishment for the mind. Non-affluent high school graduates don't lack for colleges to choose from -- certainly not in Massachusetts. From giant Northeastern to tiny Saint Hyacinth, from renowned MIT to modest Dean Junior College, this state is blessed with a vast array of private institutions of higher learning. Some students may be short on funds. None are short on choices.
Massachusetts made a mistake when it got into the business of running colleges and universities. Instead of spending billions of dollars to send deserving kids to school -- by supplementing private financial aid, by funding scholarships, by guaranteeing low-interest loans -- the state instead lavished the money on bricks and mortar. Universities and colleges by the dozen were already here. Why did Massachusetts need to build more of them?
Easy: politics. Politics is what built the state colleges. Politics is what sustains them. And it is politics that puts their self-preservation above their students' education.
Do Senate President Bill Bulger's flatterers tout him as the next president of the University of Massachusetts because of his scholarly credentials? He has none. But he does know how to pull political levers and push political buttons, and for UMass nothing could be more important. Was it academic brilliance that installed Michael Dukakis' trusted (and corrupt) adviser, Gerald Indelicato, as president of Bridgewater State? Or ex-House Speaker David Bartley as president of Holyoke Community College? Not at all. It was politics.
State campuses are studded with shrines to state politicians. At Salem State: the Kevin Harrington Academic Building. At Springfield Tech: Anthony Scibelli Hall. At UMass-Amherst: the William Mullins Athletic Center. At Bridgewater State: the J. Joseph Moakley Center.
Massasoit boasts the Anna P. Buckley Fine Arts Center and the Peter G. Asiaf Field House. UMass-Boston has the Robert Quinn Administration Building. Ex-House speaker Tommy McGee was toppled on Beacon Hill, but a building bearing his name stands erect at North Shore Community College. Even crooks share in the glory. The Paul Sheehy Residence Hall at UMass-Lowell is named for an ex-state senator who served time for bank fraud. UMass-Dartmouth's William Q. MacLean Campus Center honors a Bulger crony who was convicted of corruption.
In the state college network, politics is all. That is why, when faced with shrinking numbers of 18-year-olds during the 1980s, they reduced their standards to the point of travesty rather than close down facilities for which there was no longer a need. UMass-Amherst and UMass-Lowell began admitting virtually everyone who applied. And as the university went, so went the state colleges; most are now indistinguishable from community colleges.
The independent colleges of Massachusetts are one of this state's enduring triumphs. The public ones are among its saddest embarrassments. It's time to face facts: Beacon Hill is simply no good at the business of higher education.
Let us revive the goal we began with: making sure financial straits don't keep any qualified student out of college. Lending a kid tuition money so he can attend a decent college might not offer a politician the ego boost of a Biff MacLean Campus Center. But it just might change that kid's life forever.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)