Today’s UMass students deserve the same opportunities I had

The Cherish Act will help Mass. colleges and universities live up the promise of public higher education

FOUR YEARS AS a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst changed my life, and set me on a path for a lifetime of activism in Massachusetts. Every student in our state should have the same opportunity. With the continued investment of our political leadership, they can. 

In the fall of 1963, I arrived on the campus of the University of Massachusetts. I had spent the entirety of my earlier life in Massachusetts. My parents were both highly educated. My father was a leading health policy official in the state Department of Public Health, and hence did not earn a sizable income, although he and my mother, a former public school teacher, instilled in me a commitment to public service. She delivered five children, all of whom needed to be educated on a relatively modest income.

That first semester cost me $1,200 in 1963. The UMass campus consisted of a diverse community in excess of 20,000 students who came from all walks of life. Like me, they had made their way to UMass in pursuit of opportunity. We all knew that public higher education was our accessible, affordable ticket to a bright future. 

For my friends and for me, and for so many others, the public higher education system in the Commonwealth delivered. But for too many students, that pathway to success is no longer accessible in the way it was for us. Rising costs have made degrees from our community colleges, state schools, and UMass campuses out of reach for prospective students, especially students of color and students from lower-income backgrounds.

Public higher education institutions across the state – from UMass Boston to Berkshire Community College, from Salem State to Bristol Community College – have been working overtime to deliver an excellent education to students in a rapidly shifting financial environment. As a longtime member of the UMass board of trustees and former chair of the UMass Building Authority, I know first hand how dedicated school leadership is to serving our students. I also know that providing the level of excellence that students deserve — and making it accessible to students from every corner of Massachusetts — will require additional investment from the state. 

This past year the state signaled its commitment to public higher education in the fiscal year 2024 budget, in particular with the transformative new MassReconnect program for adult learners and with significant investments in planning for a transition to universal free community college. The Legislature and Gov. Healey have much to be proud of with these bold steps forward. And yet, there is more work to be done. 

With The Cherish Act, being heard before the Joint Committee on Higher Education on Monday, Massachusetts has the opportunity to do just that. The Cherish Act would set Massachusetts — and all of our students — up for success with game-changing advances:

  • Need-based debt-free public higher education at all undergraduate levels would open the doors of higher education to more students, especially students of color and low-income students. 
  • Investments in student supports — advisors, counselors, and other safety nets — would make it more likely that students who enroll make it to graduation. Investments in student supports are ultimately investments in graduation rates.
  • Funding for educators and staff would help address talent shortages, and bring salaries level with peers in states like New York, California, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Maryland, where the pay is higher. 
  • Supporting the physical infrastructure of campuses would build the training ground that the future demands. Not all of the facilities at our public institutions are primed to educate the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who will fuel the Massachusetts economy for years to come. Students attending public higher education institutions deserve the same quality buildings as students attending private colleges and universities. 

The investments outlined in The Cherish Act are not charity. They are some of the most crucial investments we can make as a state whose economic outlook is undeniably tied to the brain power of our residents. Having a highly educated workforce is central to our collective economic strategy, and that strategy hinges on the success of our public colleges and universities.

Why? Because those graduates are more likely to earn their degrees and stay here in Massachusetts to get jobs, start companies, and build their lives than are the graduates of our valued private schools. As much as students like me have counted on public higher education to help us secure our futures, the state is also counting on those colleges and universities to secure the economic future of the commonwealth. 

Meet the Author
A few weeks before President Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963, I joined my UMass roommate and dear friend, Mario Trubiano, in applauding President Kennedy as he delivered a stirring speech regarding the importance of higher education for all Americans as he dedicated the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. Mario, who had arrived as a teenage immigrant from his native Italy several years earlier, earned a PhD in romance languages and became a full-time professor at the University of Rhode Island for 35 years. Current and future generations of students deserve the same opportunities Mario and I had decades ago at UMass. 

Phil Johnston is president and CEO of Johnston Associates. He is a former secretary of human services under Gov. Michael Dukakis, former New England administrator of the US Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration, former chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, and a former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.