President Eddinger welcomed Commissioner Ortega who delivered remarks at the College's Strategic Planning Community Convening at the Row Hotel in Somerville in March 2023.

The Interview 

President Eddinger sits down with Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Noe Ortega




Part of an occasional series of conversations with local and national leaders about issues and trends in community college education.

This interview was conducted prior to the November 15, 2023, MASSGrant Plus Expansion, a new financial aid program for students attending Massachusetts’ public colleges, universities, and the University of Massachusetts

Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Dr. Noe Ortega arrived in Massachusetts earlier this year with a long and unique higher education story. From his early career as a teacher in Japan to working in higher education administration at research universities to his most recent post as Secretary of Education in Pennsylvania, Dr. Ortega brings both breadth and depth of experience to the job of Commissioner, along with an unshakable commitment to making college accessible to all.

Prior to joining PDE, Dr. Ortega spent eight years at the University of Michigan, where he held several academic and administrative roles. He worked as the Assistant Director and Senior Research Associate at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and the Managing Director for the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good.

Dr. Ortega received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from St. Edwards University, a Master of Science in School Counseling from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and his Ph.D. in Higher Education Policy from the University of Michigan.

President Eddinger talked with Commissioner Ortega in the fall of 2023. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

Eddinger: You've had an incredible diversity of experience in education, from teaching in Japan to serving as Secretary of Education in Pennsylvania. How have those experiences shaped your thinking and approach as Commissioner?

Ortega: Of all the experiences I’ve had, Japan stands out as a unique opportunity. I had planned to go for a couple of years and spend some time there before transitioning to work in education here [in the U.S.]. When I got there, I was working primarily with Japanese business professionals who were taking almost a language crash course—learning how to order at a restaurant or navigate a grocery store.

But then I started teaching at the kindergarten level, children as young as two and up to five or six years old, teaching language acquisition. I got to watch the way that young people absorb language, and it got me to really understand the role of an educator and the value of learning things in the early years. And I stayed long enough to see some of those toddlers enter junior high and middle school.

That experience is still relevant for me today. I see it as part of the pipeline of experiences that students have when they enter post-secondary education. Important things happen for children at an early age, and if we are going to have success in the postsecondary space, if we want students to go to college and excel, we need to think about what they do in the early years.

Eddinger: Your research and public policy work has focused on postsecondary attainment gaps in historically underrepresented populations and communities of color—why do you think those gaps persist and what is the role of public higher education and community colleges in addressing them?

Ortega: There are so many factors that go into educational attainment gaps. If you follow the history of higher education, they have been there for a long time. Many institutions were built at a time when they were not meant to be accessible to all. They were institutions developed for the wealthy, where completion was not important—they were just enhancing existing social capital or preparing folks for going into the clergy. Socioeconomic status, race, and gender were not factors. So, a lot of what we see as norms in higher education is that history continuing to persist in the way institutions operate.

When I think about the postsecondary experience, I don’t stop to think about whether or not a student today is having the same experience that I lived, inside or outside the classroom. We can’t continue to replicate the experiences of past generations—that's the cycle that so many institutions are caught in. It could be in terms of the types of people who serve on a board of trustees, who serve as presidents, as deans, or others. One of the most important things I feel we are trying to do here at the Department of Higher Education is to raise questions about whether or not we are perpetuating these practices or if we are meeting the needs of the current context.

Eddinger: Massachusetts recently took its first big step toward free community college with MassReconnect. Is this a viable tool in helping to address postsecondary attainment gaps? And, more how do you see MassReconnect in the context of the Free Community College movement?

Ortega: This is an exciting moment not just for Massachusetts Community Colleges but for everyone in the Commonwealth who cares about higher education. MassReconnect, along with free community college programs in other states and municipal free community college programs like the one that has existed for a number of years in Boston, are transforming higher education into something more akin to an entitlement than a privilege. That is a real game-changer.

MassReconnect also creates a scaffolding for policies that result in better access and outcomes for students. The free community college conversation is really operationalized in terms of tuition, fees, and books or supplies. But there is another set of conversations in terms of costs of living that are supplemental costs to learning as well. Helping students meet those costs can also be a wise investment, especially if it costs a student more to stop out because they need to work to pay rent or cover the cost of childcare in the short term rather than to focus on their education full-time, if we can bring supplemental resources to bear.  

Eddinger: You’ve touched on a fundamental part of our work at BHCC on meeting basic needs to ensure student success. Your approach aligns well with what we and other community colleges have done in expanding the delivery of wraparound resources in addition to academics.

Ortega: Absolutely. For me, one of the lessons of the pandemic was an illustration of that idea—that the barriers to access and success are not just for institutions of higher education to overcome by themselves. For example, when we became reliant on online learning during the pandemic, we very quickly ran into the problem of broadband access—broadband is expensive, and it is not available everywhere. We had people turning to departments of higher education across the country to solve the problem of bringing broadband to all. There is a lot we can do to equip students with resources like laptops or tablets or different learning platforms, but there’s also a question of infrastructure that has to be tapped into. These are really monumental problems, where it would be unrealistic for an education agency to solve them. The same goes for issues like food insecurity. I think at our best, institutions and departments of higher education can make progress, shed light, and work coherently on these issues when we are working in concert with our communities, with state and federal government, to help focus and shape the resources that can resolve them.

Eddinger: Last spring, we were delighted to have you deliver a welcome at BHCC’s strategic planning convening. You said it was critical to include historically underrepresented voices to find creative approaches to planning challenges. I wonder if you can step back into that event and elaborate on how community colleges and public higher education should approach strategic planning.

Ortega: It was great to be with the BHCC community that day—I remember the balloons, the breakfast, and the enthusiasm in that room very well. I think the key to any strategic planning is to be forward-looking, to communicate not so much where the institution is now but where it will be in the future. It’s a unique opportunity to start communicating to the public how they will interact with the institution over the coming years. In the case of BHCC, based on the conversations that day last March, I heard folks saying that there will be more interactions in areas like biotechnology, information technology, and the blue and green energy sources of the future. That’s exciting.

One of the things that stood out to me that day was the recognition of people in the audience, who were both current and new partners of the College, the recognition of the different ways each of them might best be able to interact with Bunker Hill, and that there are opportunities for the College and its partners to help one another in every one of those interactions.

Eddinger: Like you, I came to Massachusetts from elsewhere. On a lighter note, what have you enjoyed here, or have you learned or experienced anything unexpected in the time you've been here?

Ortega: It has been eleven months, and my partner and I love it here. I am so impressed, and I think anyone who comes here and loves higher education the way I do is amazed by the commitment that communities have to education. It is undeniably seen as a resource, and I see that here in Boston and when I visit campuses around the state.

My partner and I are avid sports fans and being here has taught me that if you’re going to be a sports fan in Massachusetts, you are going to fall in love with the Red Sox, so I wear my Red Sox hat proudly. We’re looking forward to watching the Celtics this year as well. Sports are a great way to engage with the city, and everywhere I go, it’s a reminder of the multitude of things our state has to offer.