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Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education calls for more support for students of color

Carlos Santiago is the Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts.
Katie Lannan
State House News Service
Carlos Santiago is the Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts.

College and university leaders need to prepare to "change as institutions" to help students of color feel more supported on campus and expand access to higher education among historically disadvantaged groups, said Massachusetts' Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago.

While the state is among the best in the nation in college degree attainment, Santiago said Monday it "does not look very good" when gaps by race and ethnicity are considered and lands in the middle of the pack compared to other states.

State education officials are grappling with how to address those disparities, which Santiago said have persisted for decades in the face of failed reform efforts.

"We need to change as institutions of higher education. We need to turn back a lot of those policies, well-intentioned over the years, but the last 50 years have shown little progress in terms of closing the disparities," Santiago said at a Board of Higher Education meeting. "This is where we need to focus, and it's going to be tough conversations on the campus, but needed conversations."

Santiago, who will step down in June after seven years in the position, did not give details on which policies he believes have fallen short on addressing higher education shortcomings that leave people of color with fewer supports, and a Department of Higher Education spokesperson declined to elaborate.

Board members are working on a 10-year racial equity strategic plan aimed at achieving on-campus racial equity with help from consulting firm Deloitte.

The wide-ranging plan will set goals for both the executive branch and for public colleges and universities such as making financial aid more accessible and beneficial to students of color, working social justice and bias discussion into higher educator professional development, and updating hiring efforts to make campus staff more representative of the student body.

Santiago said non-white students have long called for "greater representation of faculty, staff and leadership that would reflect some of their own lived experiences," calling it a worthwhile but tricky objective.

"That's not something that's easy, because in fact, historically, we have had small numbers," Santiago said. "Historically, I go from after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, where an entire system of 100,000 faculty, staff and leaders of color were part of a system that was done away with through integration. Integration was a very positive thing, but there were outcomes that gave rise to some of the deficiencies we're seeing now in representation."

Enrollment at community colleges in particular has declined over the past decade, with a sharp drop in 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid those trends, people of color continue to represent a growing share of the student population.

In the fall 2012 semester, about 58 percent of the roughly 100,000 students enrolled in Massachusetts community colleges were white, according to Department of Higher Education data. By the fall 2021 semester, in which about 65,000 students were enrolled at community colleges, the share of white students dropped to 47 percent while the share grew to 13.3 percent for Latino students, 3.4 percent for Asian and Pacific Islander Students, and 9.6 percent for African-American students.

State universities saw a similar trend. Total enrollment and enrollment by white students declined from 2012 to 2021, and the headcount of Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander and African-American students all increased over the decade.

The growth was especially pronounced among Latinos, who represented 7 percent of the state university system student body in 2012 and more than 13 percent in 2021.

"Increasingly, the K-12 system has changed. Increasingly, if you look at our community colleges, two-thirds of the students of color are in our community colleges. Look at the state universities — a number of them have become and are emerging as Hispanic-serving institutions," Santiago said. "Demographic change is impacting everything we do."

Board members said they want to learn more about the role of the state legislature, particularly dealing with funding and affordability questions.

Santiago and the consulting firm have planned several additional meetings in the coming weeks with college and university presidents, staff and faculty, and students to gather more feedback on the effort. Tthe state also conducted campus surveys last year.

"Everybody's going to have multiple bites at the apple," Santiago said.

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