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The Podium

Why UMass needs a 4.9 percent fee increase

University of Massachusetts graduates celebrate  at commencement ceremonies in May.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

University of Massachusetts graduates celebrate at commencement ceremonies in May.

One of the toughest decisions I have made in several decades in higher education was recommending an increase in tuition and fees for the coming year at the University of Massachusetts.

I see the stress that college borrowing is putting on students and our economy. I hear from parents who are frightened that rising costs will freeze their children out of a college degree or saddle them with onerous debt.

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This issue has vaulted from the kitchen table to the national stage as President Obama has warned that the escalating cost of college threatens the middle class and America’s ability to compete.

Nobody’s dream should die under the weight of higher education costs. I fully understand that the benefit of an affordable education took me from a foundering mill town in Maine to the UMass presidency.

UMass will cost students 4.9 percent more next year. The number — significantly lower than increases elsewhere — was kept at that level only because the state appreciably increased UMass funding for the first time in several years, providing $25 million for deferred union contracts.

As welcome as that funding is, it does not keep pace with rising costs. In fact, expenses in just two key areas — labor and debt service — will be $63 million higher next year.

We are grateful for every dollar we receive from the Commonwealth, but recognize that state funding per student is expected to be $8,130 next year, down from $10,015 per student just five years ago. A decade ago, the state provided 61 percent of the funding for education programs at UMass; students and their families paid 39 percent. Today, that ratio is nearly reversed.

So what were our choices?

On one hand, I was attracted to the idea of freezing student charges — and UMass is pledging to freeze tuition and fees in Fall 2013 and Fall 2014 if the state will simply agree to fund 50 percent of our general education budget.

But this year, with state funding continuing to lag, there is no escaping the enormous downside of such a move.

UMass must be able to attract and retain top faculty; doing otherwise would shortchange our students — and must live up to negotiated contracts with our 10,620 union employees.

And, to be a top-tier public university, we cannot fall behind on student housing, research facilities or classrooms. UMass has invested $2.4 billion in a much-needed building program over the past decade — but shoulders 85 percent of the resulting debt.

If we were forced to cover the cost of labor contracts and construction debt without new fee revenue, students would find a lesser university system this fall. Freezing fees would have forced deep cuts in services, putting us on a road toward a lower quality, less competitive university.

So after much discussion and soul-searching, the 4.9 percent increase (on average, $580 per student), was seen as the moderate course, providing us with some but not all of the money we need — but lower than the near double-digit increases seen in other states.

As costs rise, so too does our determination to help our students.

UMass provided $158 million in direct financial aid this past year and will do more in the coming year. Additionally, we are looking at creative ways to save via administrative cost-cutting and are turning to our successful alumni for more help. We have embarked on a $1 billion endowment campaign and are halfway there.

In my first year as president, I have seen just how much this state has to be proud of in its public university. Yet, my sense is that UMass too often is taken for granted. It is time that this outstanding institution receives the appreciation and support it deserves.

Consider these facts:

• 275,000 UMass graduates live and work in Massachusetts.

• In the educational mecca of Massachusetts, 15 percent of college degrees granted each year bear the name “University of Massachusetts.”

• UMass fuels the state’s innovation economy by attracting more than $500 million in research funding annually and is a national leader in licensing income derived from faculty inventions.

As a state, we need to come together to determine how we can provide UMass with the support it deserves. We must not year after year face the Hobson’s choice of quality or affordability.

I ask Massachusetts residents — all of whom benefit from UMass research, service, innovation and education — to join the chorus of those who value and advocate for our university. Let’s rally behind UMass — and our shared future.

Robert L. Caret is president of the University of Massachusetts.

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