Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

editorial

Mass. public universities need aid, but also cost-saving reforms

Governor Patrick’s proposed $172 million increase for public higher education in fiscal 2014 rests on these pillars: Nine of 10 graduates of Massachusetts public colleges and universities will still be here a year later, while most non-native, private-college students move out of state; and Massachusetts ranks just 28th among the 50 states in funding for public higher education, a situation that shifts more costs onto struggling families.

Most of the increase in the first year would go to the MassGrant program, which provides stipends for low-income students attending either public or private institutions of higher education. Other proposed increases are targeted to help prepare community college students for the workplace and provide enough state subsidy to cover 50 percent of students’ educational costs at the University of Massachusetts.

Continue reading below

UMass president Robert Caret has agreed to freeze fees at UMass if state lawmakers will provide the $98 million needed over the next two years to achieve the 50-50 cost split with students. In principle, it’s a fair resolution. The state subsidized about 60 percent of a student’s educational costs about a decade ago but now provides just 43 percent.

Still, UMass needs to show state lawmakers that it can produce the graduates the state needs while holding down costs. Before giving the state universities the support they seek, both Patrick and the Legislature need to make sure that they have achieved sufficient savings through two major reforms: Limiting state aid to students who extend their undergraduate experience well beyond the normal four-year graduation path; and eliminating redundancies and duplications in the sprawling higher-ed bureaucracy.

Currently, fewer than half of UMass students graduate within five years. Caret has been watching Virginia, Texas, and other states that no longer subsidize the cost of educating in-state students who take an excess of courses beyond their graduation requirements, usually 120 credits. Typically, these universities charge out-of-state tuition for these extra courses, which can double the cost. It’s a great incentive for students to finish their degrees within four years and join the working world. It also frees up space on campus, allowing more students to attend.

There are legitimate reasons — part-time job, change in major — why students might need a little extra time or additional credits to finish college. But as the typical four-year college experience has expanded by 25 percent or more, school policies have not changed in response. In exchange for the subsidies they provide, Massachusetts taxpayers can fairly expect students to complete their degrees at a purposeful pace.

Meanwhile, public higher ed in Massachusetts continues to be a maddeningly decentralized system, consisting of five UMass campuses, nine state universities, and 15 community colleges. Higher education commissioner Richard Freeland has pledged to bring more accountability into the public university system by tracking and comparing performances at various campuses, including passing rates on licensure exams. He is also trying to break up fiefdoms at the community colleges and state universities through group purchasing of gas, electricity, banking services, and other goods and services. These efforts don’t include UMass, which is undertaking efficiency efforts on a separate track. But too often, higher ed officials here simply throw up their hands when faced with inefficiencies due to decentralization.

Patrick’s tax plan would generate an additional $191 million for public colleges and universities by fiscal 2017.

Quote Icon

It’s not an accident, therefore, that Patrick earmarked much of the proposed increase in higher ed for MassGrant scholarships, not individual campuses. The average annual grant is now just $650 annually, which hardly makes a dent in tuition. Patrick would nearly quadruple the annual grant.

Patrick’s tax plan would generate an additional $191 million for public colleges and universities by fiscal 2017. That increase is consistent with the finding that Massachusetts will shortly top the nation in the number of jobs requiring an undergraduate degree, and making sure its own public university students are prepared for these jobs serves the Commonwealth’s interest.

But before granting money to state colleges and universities, the Legislature must demand reforms. The institutions should focus relentlessly on centralizing administrative services and reducing the time students spend to earn a diploma. That’s the surest way to relieve the burdens on current students — and to convince skeptical lawmakers that larger investments in higher ed will pay off.

TOMORROW: Tax and revenue plans

Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week