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Legislature should define what ‘tuition’ really means

As governor, Mitt Romney invited 127 high school seniors to attend a speech in Lowell. In their seats were letters informing them they had qualified for “full tuition” Adams Scholarships if they attended one of the state’s public colleges or universities.

Initial delight soon turned to disappointment when the students learned that they would still be on the hook for the lion’s share of their college costs. The problem was — and still is — that the word “tuition” has been rendered all but meaningless in the vocabulary of public higher education in Massachusetts.

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For two decades, the Bay State has drifted into its own odd reality when it comes to billing students for the cost of attending the University of Massachusetts. In the way “tax increase” became a phrase freighted with political risk, “tuition hike” has been all but struck from the lexicon of Massachusetts law and policy makers.

When Romney came to Lowell in late 2005, “tuition” accounted for roughly one fifth of a Bay State resident’s cost of attending a public college or university in Massachusetts. Today, it’s about one eighth. “Mandatory fees” account for the rest. That’s just tuition by another name.

The Legislature can undo more than a decade of this peculiar anomaly by passing the “tuition retention” provision in the Senate version of the fiscal 2015 state budget. It would bring the University of Massachusetts into line with its peers in other states and eliminate the antiquated low-tuition, high-fee model.

The legislation would allow the campuses of the University of Massachusetts system to keep the tuition it collects from students who are residents of the state, rather than remit it to the state treasury, a process requiring a brain-bending series of accounting adjustments, including those for more than 30 “tuition waivers,” scholarships, and grants for targeted groups bestowed over the years by the state Legislature or the Board of Higher Education. Romney’s Adams Scholarships are among them.

The language in the Senate budget would both preserve these awards and be cost-neutral for the campuses, the state, and students. It would also clean up the accounting and billing morass which prevents efficiency, accountability, and transparency, all of which the public expects and deserves.

Because of a misleading and confusing pricing structure, Massachusetts can’t provide to its consumers of higher education a true cost per credit hour of instruction, the simple and transparent sticker price offered by public colleges and universities in virtually every other state. Bills for student charges are complicated and barely comprehensible. Tuition retention will allow us to fix that.

It will also provide UMass campuses a degree of flexibility and freedom in implementing long-term planning. Campuses are fostering a culture that makes the university and its graduates more entrepreneurial and competitive in a global economy. With tuition retention, they will add a valuable and long overdue tool to continue our steady, measurable progress.

The campuses of UMass offer an increasingly attractive alternative to the array of expensive private colleges and universities for which Massachusetts is so well known. In the most competitive higher education marketplace in the nation, we are succeeding by providing educational quality at an affordable price to students regardless of their economic backgrounds.

Extending to the UMass campuses retention of all tuition does not require a leap of faith by the Legislature or additional funding. There are also solid precedents. Since 2010, the Legislature has phased in, with proper safeguards, retention of tuition paid by out-of-state students at all 29 of the state’s public colleges and universities. More to the point, in 2003, state lawmakers extended the option of retaining tuition from in-state residents to “special mission” state colleges.

Under entrepreneurial plans approved by the state’s Board of Higher Education, Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Massachusetts Maritime Academy have thrived since being allowed to retain their in-state tuition.

The Legislature should provide the same opportunity to the University of Massachusetts.

Marty Meehan has been chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell since 2007. He previously represented the Fifth Congressional District of Massachusetts in the US House of Representatives.
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