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UMass budget plan could curb student debt

A state budget proposed last week by Senate leaders would sharply boost funding for the University of Massachusetts, allowing the public system to freeze tuition and fees for the second consecutive year and creating an even split in financing between students and the state.

The proposal calls for $519 million for the five campuses, a $100 million increase from just two years ago. Led by president Robert Caret, the university has aggressively lobbied lawmakers for more generous funding to ease the financial burden on students and their families.

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“This is a real accomplishment,” said Robert Connolly, a UMass spokesman. “It will have an impact for a long time to come.”

The state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, remains a work in progress. But legislators in the House approved a similar level of funding as the Senate, indicating broad support for the plan.

Under a so-called “50-50” proposal pushed by Caret, the university agreed to freeze tuition and fees for undergraduates from Massachusetts if the state took on a greater share of funding, halting more than a decade of increases. Last year, the state held up its end — a $40 million jump in funding that was the largest in university history — and now seems poised to boost the allocation for another year.

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“I decided we had to do better,” said Robert A. DeLeo, the House speaker.

The concept that the state would split educational costs with students “hit home,” DeLeo said. The public system’s importance in educating students who typically settle in Massachusetts makes it a good investment, he said.

Michael Moore, the Senate chairman of the joint higher education committee, said the increase should make the schools more affordable and ease the student loan burden.

Moore said the Senate budget did not include significant increases for the separate system of state universities and community colleges. He has proposed an amendment to give the universities an additional $15 million to avoid fee increases. School officials have agreed, he said.

Nearly 72,000 students attend the five UMass campuses — Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell, and Worcester. For in-state undergraduates, yearly tuition and fees range from $11,600 at Dartmouth to $13,200 at Amherst, the flagship campus. Room and board is more than $10,000.

Costs have risen dramatically over the past decade. Full costs for in-state students at UMass Amherst have climbed from $15,000 in 2005 to more than $23,000 today.

Increased fees increasingly have shifted the cost of college to students, raising concerns that more families were being priced out. In 2008, tuition and fees paid for 43 percent of academic programs, while the state paid for 57 percent. By 2013, the percentage had reversed.

“Freezing fees for a second year in a row is really encouraging,” said Ferd Wulkan of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which has lobbied for increased funding. “We hear all the time about students who have to drop out because of the costs, or who couldn’t attend in the first place. This means many fewer people will be priced out.”

The “50-50” campaign provided a clear message to build support, Wulkan said. Growing concern about the impact of student loans gave the issue greater prominence, he said.

Although UMass has dramatically increased spending on financial aid, students are going deeper in debt to graduate. This year, 74 percent of UMass undergraduates will leave school with an average of more than $29,000 in debt, according to university figures.

Even with the proposed increases, UMass receives far less state funding than it did a decade ago, Wulkan said.

“This is a big turnaround, but it’s still not where it should be,” he said.

When adjusted for inflation, state funding is more than $100 million less than 2001, a drop of 24 percent, according to figures from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a research group.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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