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Public education

Public education in a private education state

When W. Brian O’Connor was offered a job on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he told his adviser at Indiana’s public Purdue University that he wasn’t sure he should accept it. After all, O’Connor was raised in university-rich New England, and, “If you talk to most people born and brought up in New England, the state universities were the insurance schools.”

O’Connor’s Indiana colleagues, however, had a different perspective.

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“They said, ‘We don’t know what’s going on in New England that the state universities are held as second-rate schools, but we think UMass is pretty good,’ ” he remembers.

That was in 1967. Some things haven’t changed, and as long as Massachusetts is home to the likes of Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, Emerson, Northeastern, Brandeis, Amherst College, Williams, and so many other private colleges, it may never change.

“It’s frustrating,” says O’Connor, now a professor of biology in his 45th year at UMass Amherst, where he also serves as an adviser to pre-med students. “People need to realize that there’s a gem out here.”

When students, alumni, administrators, and faculty like O’Connor say they’re underappreciated, they’re not just imagining it. Nor is the issue just about hurt feelings. It affects funding, cost, and, business leaders say, economic competitiveness. Massachusetts — known around the world for the quality of its private colleges and universities — ranks 30th among states in public funding per student for higher education. And it’s difficult to project things will suddenly begin to get better. In the last 10 years, state spending for higher education hasn’t increased; it’s dropped by nearly 31 percent, even as enrollment is increasing.

That means students have been asked to take up the slack. For the first time, revenue from tuition has surpassed state funding at the Amherst campus. Where the state used to pick up 39 percent of the university’s operating costs, it now covers barely 20 percent. Average tuition and fees has more than doubled in the last 10 years and exceeds the national average for public four-year colleges by more than one-third.

“People need to realize there’s a gem out there,” Brian O’Connor says.

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One way a state school can seek help is by recruiting more out-of-state students, who pay $13,400 a year more than in-state students. And it’s true, the number of out-of-state students at UMass Amherst has more than tripled in the last 10 years, from 400 to more than 1,300. It’s now harder for in-state students to get into their public flagship university; 66 percent of out-of-state applicants are admitted, versus 60 percent of in-state ones.

Dan O’Connell is less concerned with where students come from than where they go after they graduate. O’Connell is the former state secretary of housing and urban development and now president of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group of CEOs from Raytheon, Liberty Mutual, Staples, and other major companies pushing for job development. And he says public universities need support for the pragmatic reason that 85 percent of their alumni stay in Massachusetts, versus 50 percent from Boston College, just over 30 percent from Boston University, and 18 percent from Harvard. Kids who come to UMass want to stick around.

“Investment in public higher education is an economic development program with a good return to the state,” says O’Connell.

O’Connor the biology professor says he often asks his students if UMass was their first choice.

“I’m embarrassed to admit that 90 percent of them say, no, it was not,” he says. “But UMass was a bargain and their parents could afford it, so they came here. And 99 percent of them say they’re glad they did.”

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