Opinion

Opinion | Bradley Polumbo

Students pay the price for a culture of waste at UMass

There was plenty of room in the north endzone for fans during the football game between Vanderbilt and UMass at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 21, 2013. Vanderbilt defeated UMass 24-7.
Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe
There was plenty of room in the north endzone for fans during the football game between Vanderbilt and UMass at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 21, 2013. Vanderbilt defeated UMass 24-7.

If you’re a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst like I am, you got a bill this August — a fatter bill, after the UMass Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition and fees by 3 to 4 percent. This means a nearly $500 tuition increase for in-state students enrolled in a system of public higher education that already has one of the highest tuition rates in the country.

Burgeoning college costs aren’t just a Massachusetts problem. Indexed tuition rates have increased by more than eleven hundred percent since 1978, rapidly outpacing inflation.

Why? Most presidents of major public universities claim that they’ve been forced to raise rates because of declining state support. In reality, inflation-adjusted government spending per student on higher education is much higher today than it was in the 1960s, a time when the cost of attending UMass was significantly lower.

Last year, UMass president Marty Meehan was quick to shift blame onto the state, saying, “I wish the Commonwealth would invest in us like Connecticut invests in UConn.” In-state tuition at UConn is about the same as UMass, so clearly state funding isn’t the only problem. Still, Meehan told attendees at a recent board of trustees meeting that students can expect tuition increases, in order to “mitigate the budget cuts on the campuses.” But expecting students to fill the gaps in an ever-expanding budget ignores how universities like UMass waste millions.

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In the roughly $1.2 billion UMass Amherst budget for 2016, approximately $490 million went toward what the university deems “academic affairs,” while $105 million funded financial-aid programs. This means that much of the other $600 million went toward programs not directly related to academics or affordability, outlined as priorities in the university’s mission statement. This degree of imbalance is diagnostic of the lopsided priorities driving a national crisis.

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The largest red flag is UMass’s spending on its athletic program, and whether it can really be justified by results or campus culture. The university’s athletics budget for 2015 was $36.9 million, and 78 percent of the program’s 2015 “revenue” was state subsidized.

For any sports-centered university, a packed football stadium for home games is a given. But in 2016, UMass averaged less than 15,000 fans at home games — nearly 30,000 below the average for its subdivision. This abysmal attendance came despite boasting a student body of over 21,000 and nearly a quarter million alumni. A $37 million athletics budget could only buy UMass Football a 2-10 record.

Athletics isn’t the only area where the campus budget office has run amok. UMass Amherst may be ranked number one for dining by the Princeton Review, but that kind of quality doesn’t come cheap. Students pay nearly $6,000 a year for an on-campus meal plan. On campuses nationwide, the average price of an annual meal plan is only $4,500. In an era of a $1.3 trillion national student debt crisis, I’d prefer a little less avocado toast, and an extra $1,500 in my bank account.

Over the last decade, UMass Amherst has invested nearly $1.8 billion into campus expansion. These projects include some academic-orientated investment — but the administration has also squandered nearly $100 million on new residential apartments, $50 million on a recreation center, and $36.8 million on a football stadium. We’re left with a campus $1.1 billion in debt, $66 million of which must be serviced annually using student tuition.

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Meanwhile, between 2004 and 2013, the cost of attendance rose by over $8,000 for in-state students — while administrative salaries skyrocketed. In 2004, this expense was just $32 million, but those payroll figures had reached nearly $50 million for the UMass system by 2013.

Affordability is the niche that actually attracts students to UMass — yet we’ve faced a string of tuition increases over the last several years. The result? Accessible, high-quality public education is rapidly disappearing from Massachusetts. As long as the response to an exploding budget is to view cost as secondary, students like me will be stuck picking up the tab.

Bradley Polumbo is a student at UMass Amherst.