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Adrian Walker

A taxing time for many at UMass

Alexis Marvel is, in many ways, a typical UMass Boston student: hard-working, busy, and saddled with ever-increasing debt, largely due to mounting tuition and fees.

In just two years, the 23-year-old political science major has racked up $20,000 in student debt. So she will be following the state government’s budget debate on
UMass with intense personal interest.

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“For a lot of students like myself coming from a working-class background — working poor, really — this increase in fees is a real burden,” she said. “My parents don’t financially support me. Taxes and increases in revenue are difficult for a lot of legislators to talk about, but the increases in fees are a tax of sorts on students.”

The plight of University of Massachusetts students and their families is drawing attention on Beacon Hill. One proposal that could help limit fee and tuition hikes comes from Governor Deval Patrick, who has proposed increasing state spending for the system.

Meanwhile, Robert Caret, UMass’s president, has proposed freezing tuition and fees for two years, if the state will provide 50 percent of the cost of educating students — which he refers to as a “50/50 plan.”

Caret argues that the public share of public education in Massachusetts has been plummeting for decades. In the 1970s, taxpayers provided more than 70 percent of the system’s funding; now that number stands at 43 percent. While the state’s commitment to UMass has declined, tuition and fees have risen in recent years by about 5 percent a year.

“We have become one of those discretionary pieces they think they can cut, because we can always raise fees,” Caret said. “But we get criticized when we raise fees. Our goal is to get to a reasonable number so we don’t have to keep raising tuition and fees.”

Increases of $1,000 a year may not sound enormous, but students certainly feel it. Marvel — who is one of five student representatives on the UMass board of trustees — described her struggle to get a college education.

She grew up in Taunton and spent two years after high school traveling the world with a performing arts group. By the time she moved back home, she wanted to go to college and study government. Her mother manages a small business in Taunton; her father is out of the picture. If she wants to go to college, she has to figure out how to pay for it.

So Marvel works part time at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington. She also works a steady stream of temporary jobs, which she finds easier to arrange around classes. During breaks, she waits tables. She has an internship at the State House, but it doesn’t pay. Neither does the student trustee post, though it consumes a lot of hours that might be spent working a paying job.

Like Caret, Marvel is struck that a state known for higher education is so stingy when it comes to its own colleges and universities. “Even though we’re known as as state with high-quality higher education, it’s not really a reflection of our public higher education,” she said. “It’s really critical that we start to address this problem.”

She said Caret’s plan addresses pressure being felt throughout the system. “The reality is that it’s the will of the faculty and the students and the parents,” she said. “It’s really necessary if we’re going to have a high-quality system. Kids are graduating thousands of dollars in debt.”

The budget debate is about to commence at the State House, and as usual higher education seems overshadowed by other issues — among them, Patrick’s proposed tax increases, and addressing the funding nightmare of the MBTA.

But higher education deserves urgent action too.

“We will never get back to a 70 percent subsidy,” Caret said. “But our entire democracy is based on the idea of an educated citizenry. And that means we have to fund education.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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