Panelists say universities, private sector must work together to mitigate debt

By geralt [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Samantha J. Gross
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Universities and businesses must work together to make higher education more affordable for students, business leaders agree.

That collaboration was the focus on a Tuesday panel at the UMass Club featuring University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan, Babson College President Kerry Healey, Aron Ain, CEO of Lowell-based Kronos Inc. and Travis McCready of the Massachusetts Life Science Center. They discussed private-public relationships with local industry professionals.

The panel, moderated by Boston Business Journal Editor Doug Banks, zeroed in on the relationships between businesses and schools in the context of reducing student debt.

Meehan, the former congressman and UMass Lowell chancellor, spoke fondly of the UMass system’s partnership with Kronos, and how internship and co-op programs there provide good pay and work experience, and often high-paying jobs for students upon graduation.

“Kronos is a great example of really taking this on. Their partnership with UMass Lowell is a national model for how companies and universities should partner in terms of dealing with the issue of student debt,” Meehan told The Sun in an interview after the panel.

Ain called UMass Lowell “a blessing” to Kronos, which also boasts a student loan repayment assistance program. Kronos hires hundreds of UMass Lowell student interns each year.

Meehan said public-private partnerships like the one with Kronos is key to helping students better prepare for the workforce while graduating with as little debt as possible. To keep these relationships going, university faculty must also engage with the private sector.

“When faculty understands what business and industry means, it makes for a stronger collaboration,” he said. “It’s a critical component of what UMass does. It’s one of the reasons why being a research institution is an asset to our ability to collaborate.”

Meehan added that this connection drives UMass Lowell students into the workforce.

“Lowell is a campus that has a history of connecting to business and industry,” he said. “Co-ops and internships result in companies getting highly qualified folks, and result in people having those skills to go right into the work force.”

McCready said colleges must continue to connect students with opportunities in Massachusetts’ thriving biotech industry. The MLSC runs internship programs for high school students and also funds internships for 500 college students each year.

He added that taxpayer dollars are worth spending on public education like UMass because the practical experience with which students graduate prepares them to work and develop the industry for Massachusetts residents. Students who work in the biotech industry often enough money to pay off high tuition bills, he said.

To combat those high tuition bills, Meehan said the UMass system plans to expand its online program, a consortium called UMassOnline.

“Technology can reduce the cost of almost anything,” Meehan said. “We need to look at how we can use technology to provide different options. Four-year colleges will always be an option, but online, three-year degrees and community college are going to be other ones.”

Healey predicted that working hard and graduating early could also help wipe out indebtedness.

“Do internships, study abroad, do experiential learning,” she said. “You’ll have a job and earning power. It can make a $100,000 difference to graduate early.”

In terms of how the work experience makes college more affordable, Meehan said the partnerships help, but the responsibility ultimately lies with both universities and the state.

“The commonwealth of Massachusetts needs to make a more dramatic investment in need-based aid, but also in public higher education,” he said.

Meehan added that since he was a UMass student, the cost of education has remained nearly the same when adjusted for inflation.

“The state paid about 85 percent to the overall budget then,” he said. “Today, the state pays about 20 percent. The burden of who pays has shifted.”

Meehan said UMass plans to engage the private sector and bolster the school system’s research programs.

“It’s more expensive to be a research university,” he said. “But Massachusetts needs a public research university. The ability to collaborate in the industry is what university need to do to survive.”

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