By Jennifer Fenn
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 all over the state. Interest and enrollment is up not only at the system’s flagship, University of Massachusetts Amherst, but at institutions like UMass Lowell, Bridgewater State University, and local community colleges.
“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 has always played second fiddle to the world-class private universities that dot the state from Boston to the Berkshires, 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.
“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 average cost of attending a private four-year institution is $39,518.
The annual cost for a state resident at UMass Lowell is $23,340, and Bridgewater State University, $18,645. Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley costs about $522 per course.
Jeremy Solomon, associate vice president for marketing at MassBay, which also has campuses in Ashland and Framingham, said parents are frightened by the rising cost of college, with no guarantee of a job after graduation.
“MassBay is the most affordable higher education option for students in MetroWest,’’ Solomon said. “At a time when the cost of college is rising dramatically and a college education is required for the 21st century workforce, MassBay provides an affordable, practical education for students ages 18 to 80.’’
Community colleges offer classes at a reasonable cost so students can attend for two years without being burdened with huge amounts of debt.
“Rather than spending money on a degree at a four-year institution and not fitting in or not performing or not being ready and still enduring the burden of a $40,000, $50,000, or $60,000 tuition, students can try college here and prepare themselves for a four-year institution via the transfer option,’’ Solomon said.
He said the transfer rate is about 30 percent a semester.
Sarah Shehadeh of Watertown took a gap year after high school for humanitarian work in India. After returning, she wasn’t sure she was ready to jump into the cost and commitment of a four-year program. She said she was skeptical of community colleges at first, but is thrilled with her decision to attend MassBay this year.
“Growing up, all my friends went to four-year universities and I was always against a community college route, but I took a step back,’’ she said. “We did a lot of research on what schools have a great education and got good results.’’
She said her professors give her personal attention, and want to see her succeed.
“If I feel discouraged, they’ll ask if I’m OK,’’ she said.
Affordability is also one of the big draws of Bridgewater State, said Dana Mohler-Faria, the university’s president.
But while students are initially drawn to the school for the cost, Mohler-Faria said, they stay for the programs. The school is the largest producer of teachers in the state, has dozens of international partnerships, offers extensive undergraduate research opportunities, recently completed a $98 million science building, and has seen graduation rates go up.
“People realize they can be here and get a high quality education at a lower cost,’’ Mohler-Faria said. “We see people who may have typically gone to a private institution opting to come here.’’
Bridgewater State’s undergraduate enrollment has gone from 7,598 in 2003 to 9,684 this year, representing a 27 percent jump in a decade.
Ten years ago, 30 percent of its applicants named Bridgewater State their first choice, while 70 percent considered it a backup school. Those numbers have since flipped, with 75 percent of applicants identifying the university as their first choice.
“It’s probably the best-kept secret in Massachusetts in terms of public education,’’ said Mohler-Faria.
Zohaa Basra, a senior at Bridgewater State, said she chose the state school after considering Boston College, and state universities in New York and Maryland. She said she was apprehensive about attending a public university because she had heard a private school would offer more opportunities.
In the end, the political science major from New York said her decision came down to cost. “I decided to take a risk and it’s rewarded me tenfold.’’ Basra said.
She has spent two summers in Washington, D.C., one interning at a private criminal law firm and another in the office of US Senator Elizabeth Warren. She also attended President Obama’s inauguration.
“These are things I couldn’t have done on my own,’’ she said. “They provided me with the education, experience, and funding as well. Bridgewater State gives you more bang for your buck.’’
UMass Lowell has also seen huge gains in enrollment. It has gone 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 1,134. During that time, the university jumped in national rankings and has become more selective when choosing students.
“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 her tuition and fees, and was offered honors housing.
During the last three years, she’s worked as a co-op scholar intern at Philips Health Care in Andover, and 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.
Freeland said all the UMass campuses are focused on becoming more selective and raising the academic level of their student body, a move he said is appropriate for the state’s top-tier research universities.
While it is making it more difficult for some students to get in, Freeland said, there are other options for students within the system.
“There is no question that as UMass seeks to be more selective, you’ll see growth in the state universities and community colleges,’’ he said. “What the state needs to do is provide an affordable quality alternative for all students across the whole system. UMass doesn’t need to do it by itself. That’s why the total system is so important. People need to understand that these institutions offer quality alternatives.’’