By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Once overlooked amid the higher education elite of Massachusetts, the state’s public universities and community colleges are stepping into the limelight with increased funding, state-of-the art facilities, honors programs, affordable prices, and higher graduation rates.
With the rising cost of a private school education, combined with the public system’s big push to improve its standing locally and nationally, students are flocking to campuses around the state. Interest and enrollment is up not only at the system’s flagship — the University of Massachusetts Amherst — but at institutions including UMass Lowell, Salem State University, and the region’s two community colleges: North Shore, with campuses in Danvers and Lynn; and Northern Essex, located in Haverhill and Lawrence.
“We have been working very hard for the last five years to increase public understanding and recognition of the quality of what’s going on in public higher education and increasing support for it,’’ said Richard Freeland, commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts.
Freeland said the system always has played second fiddle to the world-class private universities in Massachusetts. But that has started to change as lawmakers, business leaders, and the public better understand the role it plays in shaping the state’s workforce: One year after graduation, nine out of 10 Massachusetts public education graduates remain in the state, either working or pursuing higher education.
Amelia Westmark, the director of guidance at Medford High School, said the state has been marketing and sharing success stories more than ever. She said its reputation is improving as the system has added more honors programs.
“We have students who will get very upset if they don’t get into one of the state schools,’’ Westmark said.
In the past 10 years, undergraduate enrollment systemwide has gone up by 21 percent, with the biggest overall gain seen at the community college level. Throughout the system, there are 290,000 students at 29 institutions: 15 community colleges, nine state universities, and five UMass campuses.
According to the College Board, the annual average cost of attending a private four-year institution is $39,518.
The annual cost for a state resident at UMass Lowell — including room and board — is $23,340, and $20,154 at Salem State University. At the community colleges, fees are $169 per credit at North Shore ($5,070 for a full-time 15-credit course load) and $162 at Northern Essex ($4,860 full time).
UMass Lowell has seen a huge gain in enrollment — from 9,007 undergrads in 2003 to 12,287 this year — for a 36 percent jump.
UMass Lowell chancellor Marty Meehan said the university has created faculty mentors, increased research opportunities, added a co-op program, moved into Division 1 athletics, and invested in infrastructure, including new dorms, parking garages, and an $80 million scientific and academic research building.
“Being a research university and having a robust research program is important to our reputation and student experience when they get here,’’ Meehan said. “It means students have an opportunity to work with research faculty conducting research and working on technologies for new companies, and trying to solve society’s problems.’’
Meehan pointed to huge gains at UMass Lowell in recent years, such as a 9.8 percent increase in its graduation rate between 2007 and 2012. In the past six years, the combined average SAT score for incoming freshmen went up by 64 points to 1134.
“We want to compete with all institutions, and I want the facilities here to be as good as any private or public university in the country,’’ Meehan said. “That’s our approach here to everything we do. If we want to do something, we demand excellence in that area. That’s why things have gone well.’’
Madeline Koufogazos graduated from Dracut High School three years ago with a 4.0 grade point average. She was accepted into several private schools, including Assumption College and Merrimack College, but chose UMass Lowell. While the financial aid package played a role in her decision, so, too, did the opportunities UMass Lowell offered, she said.
“When I got my acceptance letter, it was too good to pass up,’’ said Koufogazos, now a junior.
Koufogazos was accepted into a co-op scholars program; received a scholarship to cover half of her tuition and fees; and was offered honors housing.
During the last three years, she has worked as a co-op scholar intern at Philips Health Care in Andover, and in the university’s advancement office and office of university relations.
“I knew it would be a gateway for me to discover what I like,’’ she said.
Officials say interest is growing at the public universities and community colleges because families are starting to realize the value in the system.
“You’re getting the same quality instruction and an excellent education for a fraction of the cost,’’ said Karen Cady, a spokeswoman for Salem State.
While many private universities have large classes and graduate student instructors, Salem State prides itself on a student-to-faculty ratio of 16 to 1, Cady said. In recent years, the university has built new residence halls, a library, and fitness center.
“We’re a teaching university, so the focus is on what goes on in the classroom,’’ Cady said. “We have everything that any private university has to offer, except the price tag.’’
Cady said the university works closely with local employers to tailor programs and classes around their needs so students will have jobs, and employers will have a trained workforce.
She said another draw to Salem State is its location. Not only is it just a 30-minute train ride to Boston, but Salem itself has become an attractive destination.
“Salem has become a hip place to be,’’ Cady said.
Salem State’s undergraduate enrollment has gone from 6,508 in 2003 to 7,741 in 2012.
But for some, four years at a state college or university is still too expensive. As a result, more students are turning to community colleges where they can attend classes for two years without acquiring huge amounts of debt, officials said.
An increasing number of local high school graduates are choosing to start at Northern Essex Community College, according to fall 2013 enrollment figures. For example, enrollment was up by 22 percent over the year before among Lawrence High School graduates, 18 percent among Haverhill graduates, and 25 percent among Andover graduates. Twenty-eight Newburyport graduates enrolled this fall, compared with nine in 2012.
“It’s all about value and quality,” NECC president Lane Glenn said in a statement. “High school students and their families are recognizing the value of starting at a community college. One recent Northern Essex graduate, who received her liberal arts associates degree here and transferred to Salem State for her bachelor’s, was buying a house while her peers were worried about paying off college loans.”
Enrollment at NECC has gone from 6,300 in 2003 to 7,311 in 2012.
Ernie Greenslade, director of public relations at Northern Essex, said students can take classes, play sports, and participate in other extracurricular sports just as at any other college. The only difference, she said, is that students don’t live on campus.
She said the college has a strong relationship with UMass Lowell, where 364 students transferred last year. She said they are students who either couldn’t initially get into UMass Lowell or who wanted to save money during the first two years.
North Shore Community College saw a spike in enrollment after the recession in 2008 as people looked to switch careers or beef up their skills, said Linda Brantley, the college’s director of public relations and new media.
While enrollment has leveled off over the past year, more students are looking to take advantage of the transfer option, Brantley said.
“Our enrollments are still robust, and that has to do with the cost of higher education,’’ she said. “Massachusetts is blessed with so many wonderful options, depending on what you can afford, and more people are beginning to look at the community college’s financial equation as very attractive.’’
Brantley said students can attend North Shore and get the basic requirements out of the way in two years and then transfer to a four-year institution. She said the school has transfer agreements with a variety of colleges, so students know their options from the outset.
“The two colleges work it out to make it as seamless for the student as possible,’’ she said.
She said North Shore, which has specialty programs in aviation, nursing, and other medical support areas, offers flexible scheduling for students on its campuses or online.
“We really try very hard to meet people where they are and get them what they need.’’