EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 23, 2012

Column: Northern Essex aims for national leadership in education

Lane A. Glenn
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — At the Statehouse on Thursday, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education released a special report, “Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Public Higher Education.”

The report is part of The Vision Project, an effort among the commonwealth’s 29 public colleges and universities to achieve excellence in higher education for our nearly 300,000 students. Goals of the project include increasing college participation and completion, enhancing student learning, more closely aligning curriculum with the needs of employers, and closing achievement gaps among students from different ethnic, racial, and income groups.

The state’s public community colleges, colleges, and universities are currently above average when measured on seven key outcomes that have been identified but The Vision Project sets the bar even higher, aspiring to national leadership.

When the goals of the Vision Project are r

ealized, Massachusetts will be one of the top five public higher education systems in the nation, benefiting our students, their families, our communities, and our economy.

The report released on Thursday is our first look at how close we are to reaching our goal of excellence or national leadership.

There is quite a bit of good news in the report:

Massachusetts already leads the nation in the rate of recent high school graduates who attend college.

Those high school graduates are better prepared for college than in any other part of the country.

More adults have college degrees in Massachusetts than in any other state.

Our programs are closely aligned with workforce needs, especially in health care and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

Our community college graduates have strong passing rates on national licensure exams.

And we still face some challenges. Despite our status as the state with the best prepared high school students and largest proportion of college educated adults in the nation:

A third of the students who enroll in public colleges and universities are still not prepared for college-level work and must take remedial courses.

We lag behind other states in degree completion for Massachusetts residents (since we import a lot of our adult degree holders from other states to work in education, healthcare, finance, and high technology fields).

Even more troublingly, the achievement gap between minority and white students in the Bay State is several points wider than the national average.

So, for all the success we have to celebrate, we do still have some work to do. What does all of this mean for our

local community college, NECC?

We have made some remarkable progress over the last few years toward the Vision Project’s goals of improving college participation and completion, enhancing student learning, closing achievement gaps, and aligning programs with workforce needs.

By working closely with area high schools, we are helping to improve students’ preparation for college through activities like early college placement testing, dual enrollment in high school and college courses, and actual early college programs, through which students can earn 30 or more college credits by the time they graduate from high school. Our ambition is that someday, no student in the Merrimack Valley will need to take remedial courses when they get to NECC (or any other college).

NECC was the first college in New England to be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution, based on our large enrollment of Hispanic students. Through a variety of state and federal grant programs, local support, and strong community partnerships, we have created a number of programs and services for these students, and they are working: The achievement gap between Hispanic and white students at NECC is smaller than across the state, and our goal is to eliminate it completely.

Through NECC’s involvement with Achieving the Dream, a national network of community colleges working to improve student success across the board, we have seen significant improvement in our students’ success in writing, mathematics, course completion, and graduation. Last May, the college issued 1,149 degrees and certificates — the highest number in our 50-year history, on the way to our goal of 1,500 by 2020.

And of course, we are constantly adding and making changes to our academic programs to ensure that what our students are learning is aligned with workforce needs. As examples, last year, NECC received a “Gold” endorsement from the Massachusetts Life Science Education Consortium for our new Associate Degree in Lab Science program, and by this time next year, we will open the doors of the new Dr. Ibrahim El Hefni Allied Health and Technology Center in downtown Lawrence, a $25 million, 35,000 square foot facility that will provide expanded, state-of-the-art training for health careers.

The Vision Project is a bold statement about the ambitions of higher education in Massachusetts.

This report is an important step in engaging our communities in understanding where we are on our journey toward excellence and national leadership for the commonwealth’s colleges and universities.

Be assured that NECC, your community college, is fully committed to getting us there.

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Dr. Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College.