Massachusetts is home to the highest share of adults with college degrees. That fact, coupled with the state’s renowned cluster of prestigious private institutions and the persistently high achievement of our K-12 students, masks long-term inequities that threaten the Commonwealth’s status as an education leader.

Though Massachusetts leads the nation in high school graduation, college enrollment, and overall degree attainment, the attainment levels of our African American and Latinx students remain substantially lower than those of the general population. A recent analysis by the Department of Higher Education (DHE) found that, while 65% of White female adults (age 25+) in Massachusetts hold at least an associate degree, the rate for Latino males is only 22% (see Figure 1.) In fact, we see such gaps, many in the double digits, in every success metric tracked in public higher education.

Massachusetts Key Education Indicators: By Race/Ethnicity and Gender

Figure 1. Massachusetts Key Education Indicators: By Race/Ethnicity and Gender

While multiple states have adopted a focus on equity, higher education leaders in Massachusetts have taken the unprecedented step of elevating equity as a singular strategic policy objective, a priority to be addressed in its own right. Last year, Commissioner Carlos Santiago and Chair Chris Gabrieli proposed this new direction for public higher education, affirming Massachusetts’ commitment to maintaining high levels of educational attainment among the adult population while emphasizing equitable postsecondary outcomes for students from traditionally underserved backgrounds, particularly African American and Latinx students in gateway cities. With a directive from the Board of Higher Education in hand, the DHE staff now begins work in partnership with Massachusetts public higher education institutions to develop a statewide strategic framework focused on equity. The expectation is that by focusing on equity in our policies, programs, and initiatives, the system of public higher education will enhance economic and social mobility for all citizens, but particularly for students of color who have not been well-served by our higher education institutions.

Progress on eliminating racial disparities will be shared using the recently launched interactive Performance Measurement Reporting System with metrics that will identify existing disparities and chart our progress in eliminating them. The new data visualizations will help campuses and key external stakeholders, such as legislators and local business leaders, understand the urgency of the equity agenda.

The heart of our work will focus on assessing current and prospective higher education policy from an equity perspective. To determine the overall success of this initiative requires closing opportunity and achievement gaps by ensuring that African American and Latinx students are succeeding at faster rates than the population at large. Movement in the right direction would be illustrated by overall improvements for all students in general, accompanied by even greater improvements for students of color. Advancing equity means more than simply creating a level playing field; it requires a concerted and intentional effort to remove barriers and obstacles that hinder the success of students that heretofore did not have these advantages. Given seismic shifts in demographics, Massachusetts will not be able to maintain its position as the most educated state in the country unless we address the persistent inequities that exist within our system of public higher education.

 

Our equity focus is already receiving national notice. We were pleased to be one of seven states recently selected by the Lumina Foundation to receive an Equity Leadership Acceleration Grant to support professional development for DHE staff. By providing agency staff with the opportunity to learn and engage in equity-minded leadership, the DHE team will be able to collectively advance the state’s primary goal centered on equity. DHE staff will also engage in a policy audit and analysis to examine how state policies and programs can be improved by removing systemic barriers and revised to address racial disparities.

An improved focus on increased attainment with an emphasis on equity will not only help Massachusetts maintain its status as the most educated state in the country, but more importantly, it will fulfill the promise of economic and social mobility that many students, especially students of color, seek when entering into postsecondary.