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UMass board OK’s 4.9% fee hike

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees approved a 4.9 percent increase in student fees Wednesday, giving its emphatic blessing to a proposal Governor Deval Patrick had slammed the day before in a last-minute letter and phone call to the president of UMass, Robert Caret.

The action, in a 15-2 vote, will raise fees for in-state students by about $580, bringing annual tuition and fees to $12,481.

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The fee hike is not unusual — UMass has raised fees for at least 10 consecutive years. The new increase, which affects all undergraduates and most graduate students, is also smaller than recent fee hikes at several other state universities and UMass peer systems.

But Tuesday morning, Patrick told Caret he believed any rise in fees would put too much pressure on students and families, especially given that student loan interest rates are set to double if a deadlocked Congress fails to act. Patrick said he believed UMass first needed to ensure it had cut all possible costs.

Patrick said Wednesday morning at the State House that it is “a crummy time” to raise fees.

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“I mean, I get the economic piece, the financial piece,’’ he said of the university’s financial predicament, noting that he hoped the state would increase support for higher education before the end of his term. “I’ve seen the numbers.”

But he added that “quid pro quo for that is to show the public that every element of waste, every dime, has been wrenched out.’’

Several UMass board members said they believed Patrick’s attempted intervention was designed to put the governor squarely on President Obama’s side in the national debate on college affordability. They said that he did not personally lobby UMass trustees to mobilize them against the hike, suggesting he might have come out against the increase largely for public relations purposes.

But Wednesday, an administration official said Patrick had made his intentions clear to UMass months ago, before the national debate heated up.

“The governor was very clear during a lunch in March with Caret that he did not want to see any student fee increases,” the official said. “The idea that this is coming as a surprise to anyone at UMass is ridiculous.”

Tuesday night, the UMass board’s finance committee met to consider the fee increase and added an amendment that could address a recent and precipitous drop in state funding — and put the ball back in Patrick’s court. Board chairman James Karam proposed that the university freeze the new fee rate for the next two years, on one condition: that the state restore its funding to 2009 levels, allowing UMass to get half its revenue from the state and the other half from students.

Karam said that a two-year freeze would be unprecedented nationwide for a public university system.

Patrick has proposed a 6 percent increase in funding to UMass, but it is not enough to constitute the 50-50 split Karam and Caret are seeking. Instead, UMass said, the state’s share is expected to dip next year from 45 percent to 43 percent.

“We need to get back to a footing where the state is funding its public university at some reasonable level, at least equal to what students and their parents are paying,” Caret said Wednesday in a statement. “To do otherwise is to take the ‘public’ out of public higher education.”

At Wednesday’s board meeting, state Secretary of Education Paul Reville — acting on instructions from Patrick — argued against the fee increase, suggesting that UMass instead undertake a study to examine ways it might further cut costs.

The UMass board voted to expand an existing task force on efficiencies. But university officials said they already are aggressively trimming costs. In the past three years, the system has cut 645 jobs, saving $68 million, and 160 more positions are on the chopping block, for another $17.4 million.

Meanwhile, enrollment has grown by 12,000 in the last 10 years; research expenditures have jumped $100 million in the last four; and labor expenses have risen this year due to new union contract obligations. UMass is also facing a $3.2 billion backlog in deferred maintenance.

The new fee increase would net the system some $25 million in revenue.

Without that money, Karam said, the university might have to consider cutting projects that Patrick and others have praised as key to the state’s economic recovery.

“We could eliminate things like funding for the new green high-performance computing center” in the struggling Pioneer Valley, he said. “But if we did that I’m not sure what we’d be providing to the public.”

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael. Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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