A higher ed turning point

UMass must fight for long-overdue state investment

STATE FUNDING FOR the University of Massachusetts system is up for debate once again on Beacon Hill. Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders want UMass President Marty Meehan and the UMass board of trustees to roll back tuition and fee increases approved in June. However, in return for trimming student costs, Meehan wants the Legislature fully fund $10.9 million in faculty and staff pay raises that university employees haven’t seen because of financial pressures.

The June tuition and fee hikes prompted UMass Amherst students to campaign to limit proposed increases that would make the university even less affordable for students.

I know many students who use crowdfunding sites, like GoFundMe and YouCaring, to cover the gap between financial aid and their final bill. I know students who have gone hungry because they had to pay a tuition bill. I know others who have been forced to take a semester off or drop out altogether. Just two weeks ago, I heard from a former co-worker that an honors program student with a 4.0 GPA dropped out because she couldn’t pay what she owed to UMass.

As a recent UMass graduate, I couldn’t stand by and let the state shirk its responsibility to provide affordable public higher education, so I offered to help. Over several weeks, students and supporters like me helped shape the conversation by speaking at two board of trustee meetings and explaining our views on the increases to regional and statewide news media.

Now we’re at another crossroads. UMass officials say scaling back the fee increases will be contingent on receiving more state money to pay for the faculty and staff salary hikes that the university negotiated with campus unions.

While the university didn’t win the $578 million that administrators originally sought from the state budget for fiscal 2016, UMass students thought the $532 million Senate proposal was a good place to start. The House had come up with only $514 million in its budget plan.

But when Baker vetoed the Legislature’s proposal and countered with a $526 million funding plan, students lobbied House and Senate leaders to override the governor’s veto to protect the people who can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars more in UMass tuition and fees.

Baker and legislative leaders are right to suggest that students deserve a break from the high costs of public higher education. But fiscal 2016 funding, only a $12 million increase in funding over last year’s appropriation, is insufficient.

If Baker truly plans to make “every effort” to “ensure the affordability of our public colleges,” as a spokesperson said in a recent statement he must address the systemic underfunding of the UMass system by the state and its effects on students and families around the Commonwealth.

The Boston Globe’s Evan Horowitz noted recently that funding for public higher education has fallen 17 percent since the Great Recession, while the cost of attendance has increased 22 percent. And that’s only over the past few years. Meehan cited more disturbing statistics in a July interview with WBUR. When he was an undergraduate at UMass Lowell, Meehan said, the state provided 85 percent of the funding for the UMass system. It now provides just 19 percent.

For the first time in many years, UMass stakeholders have united behind one unassailable fact—the lack of state funding is responsible for the high costs that are absorbed by students. But students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and families must remind Beacon Hill lawmakers of the importance and power of the UMass community by calling for a responsible level of state funding.

With more than $1 trillion in student loan debt now outstanding and college costs that have increased far faster than the rate of inflation, paying for college is a pressing national issue. Republicans and Democrats alike agree that this heavy burden has to be taken off young people and their families.

The Boston Globe has called the university’s request for adequate funding “grandstanding.” But it’s really Meehan drawing a line in the sand. UMass has been a fiscal punching bag for years. Finally, we have a university president who won’t take it anymore. I’m an alumnus.  I have his back. So do the students. Will the Commonwealth abandon UMass yet again? Or will we finally start making up for decades of neglect?

Meet the Author

Massachusetts has the potential to show the country that a well-funded public university system is the best solution to the college affordability and student debt crisis.

Medford-based freelance writer Zac Bears is a former editor and columnist for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, UMass Amherst’s independent student newspaper.