Senate budget bars UMass tuition, fee increases

But school officials say spending plan lacks sufficient funding

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

SENATE BUDGET WRITERS are looking to compel the University of Massachusetts to hold the line on student costs for the coming academic year but, in a move UMass officials blasted as “devastating,” did not include the funding level the university said is necessary to support a tuition freeze.

Like the House and Gov. Charlie Baker, the Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended funding the five-campus system at roughly $558 million, an appropriation about $10.2 million below the level UMass President Marty Meehan has repeatedly said would allow the school to freeze tuition for in-state undergraduates next year. Meehan has said that without that funding, tuition will likely rise 2.5 percent.

The Senate Ways and Means budget introduced Tuesday contained new language stipulating that “the university shall not increase undergraduate tuition and mandatory curriculum fees for in-state students for the school year beginning in the fall of 2019.”

“We’ve heard a lot, we’ve had lots of discussions in this building about the stifling student debt that students are graduating with and the high cost of higher education,” Chairman Michael Rodrigues told reporters Tuesday morning. “We feel very strongly, with a — really, I can’t remember the last time we’ve invested this many new dollars in the UMass system — a 7 percent increase, that there should be no need to increase tuition to the students and families of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Though Rodrigues characterized the $39 million bump over this fiscal year as a 7 percent increase, UMass officials have described it throughout the budget process as full funding of the state’s share of collective bargaining costs, at about $34 million, and a 1 percent increase to the base appropriation.

In a letter to Senate President Karen Spilka on Thursday, Meehan and the chancellors of the Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell and medical campuses said it was unprecedented to include a “statutory tuition freeze with no correlated funding to cover the university’s fixed cost increases,” which top 3 percent annually.

“We are extremely concerned that the Senate budget restricts the university’s fiduciaries from setting tuition and fees consistent with its long-term budget planning and development practices,” the lettersaid. “This decision came with no warning or apparent effort to understand its impact on university finances. It is a severe departure from longstanding practice and inconsistent with the Senate’s historic support for public higher education.”

Meehan and the chancellors asked the Senate to amend its budget to increase the UMass appropriation by $10.2 million and eliminate the freeze language and other restrictions. Otherwise, the letter said, UMass would need to make $22.2 million in budget reductions across its four undergraduate campuses: $8.27 million at UMass Amherst, $7.13 million at Boston, $2.3 million at Dartmouth and $4.5 million at Lowell.

According to UMass, the $10.2 million the school has been requesting represents the amount that would be generated by a 2.5 percent tuition increase, and the Senate budget as written would preclude or divert an additional $10 million by not allowing technology or student activity fee increases and by redirecting $2.3 million of UMass Boston operating funds to centers and institutes at that campus.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee also wrote language into the UMass line item requiring that funding for each center and institute at UMass Boston “shall be provided at an amount not less than in fiscal year 2018.”

The Senate language would need to survive negotiations with the House to make it to Baker’s desk.

Asked Tuesday morning how he anticipated UMass would be able to freeze its tuition without the $10.2 million the school has been seeking, Rodrigues — who graduated from the school that became UMass Dartmouth and whose district is adjacent to the Dartmouth campus — said, “I’m sure with a 7 percent, $39 million increase in our appropriation, and their ability that we granted them a few years ago for tuition retention, they should be able to find a way.”

In their letter, Meehan, interim UMass Boston Chancellor Katherine Newman and chancellors Kumble Subbaswamy of Amherst, Robert Johnson of Dartmouth, Jacqueline Moloney of Lowell and Michael Collins of the Worcester-based medical school, said the “unanticipated adjustments” would lead to “dramatic impacts on student services and support as well as significant workforce reductions” and potentially reduced funding for institutional financial aid serving the neediest students.

The university system serves 75,000 students, including 56,000 Massachusetts residents.

UMass in 2018 raised its tuition 2.5 percent for in-state undergraduates, or an average $351 per student, marking the fourth straight year of tuition hikes for UMass students after a two-year freeze that ended in 2015. Out-of-state tuition went up 3 percent, or an average $938 per student.

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Zac Bears, the executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, said his organization was “deeply concerned by the misguided attempt to freeze tuition and fees at UMass without providing the funding necessary to make it happen.”

“Students and families are paying more because the State House has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from our public colleges and universities,” Bears said in a statement. “Forcing campuses to cut more professors and programs is no solution and hurts students’ education on top of the exorbitant price the state charges to attend public college.”