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Derrick Z. Jackson

Pricing out state university students

Richard Freeland, higher education commissioner, warns of the increasing debt burden on state university students.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Richard Freeland, higher education commissioner, warns of the increasing debt burden on state university students.

AMID A welcome revival of state support for higher education, Massachusetts is nonetheless sowing the seeds of a two-tiered system. As the UMass system receives enough funding to freeze student fees for an unprecedented second straight year, less-generous funding is forcing many other state universities to raise them.

From Salem State University on the North Shore to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the Berkshires, fees are going up, in some cases between $400 and $500 per student. “It’s not at a crisis level this year, but I am alarmed for the next two or three years if costs keeps escalating,” said Fitchburg State president Robert Antonucci. “If more students go into debt, that starts closing the door.”

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For many state university students, who are often the first in their families to attend college, $500 is a big hit. Average state university fees have doubled over the last decade from $3,635 to $7,313. “We’re a bit uneasy,” said president Barry Maloney of Worcester State. “We’ve already heard from a lot of parents on costs.”

But while the state universities struggle, state support for the five UMass campuses is going up. Under a “50-50” plan, UMass pledged to freeze student fees if the state provided half of the operating funds. The state’s share of UMass’s funding of academic programs had plunged from 57 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2013. Gov. Patrick and the Legislature responded with a $100 million boost over the last two years to get the share back up to nearly half.

Following a similar logic, the nine separate state universities also froze their fees last year in exchange for a $15 million increase in state funding, from 36.6 percent to 40.3 percent. But next year, instead of another $15 million to continue the surge, the Patrick administration and the Legislature are giving them only an additional $8 million.

Administration officials said that they did not request the full $15 million because they were unsure if all the university presidents would agree to freeze fees again. But Vincent Pedone, executive director of the Council of Presidents for the state universities, insisted the presidents made it “crystal clear” during the budgetary process that they would.

But all that came through was $8 million, forcing the universities to hike costs for students in September. The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education, Senator Michael Moore of Millbury and Representative Tom Sannicandro of Ashland, said tens of millions of dollars in new spending for early and K-12 education, children’s services, and to combat the heroin epidemic further depleted the funds available to help the universities. Both said they want to look at 50-50 funding for state universities next year, with Sannicandro saying the commitment has to be “higher than levels we had in the past.”

More state university students — 65 percent — graduate with debts than UMass students — 61 percent.

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That’s an understatement. Even with the nation’s third-highest jump in higher-ed spending from FY 2012 to FY 2014, Massachusetts is still 21 percent below its spending levels of 2001: the $1.2 billion set aside in fiscal 2015 does not come close to the $1.5 billion in 2001 inflation-adjusted dollars.

It’s students and their families who are making up the difference. Take the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which graduated one of my sons in 2013. We met many earnest young men and women from hardscrabble backgrounds. During his four years, tuition and fees for a freshman rose from $15,152 to $18,036.

In testimony last fall to the joint committee, state higher education commissioner Richard Freeland warned that state university graduates are “not far behind” UMass students in average student debt at $22,400, compared to $26,800 at UMass. And more state university students — 65 percent — graduate with debts than UMass students — 61 percent.

Despite Massachusetts being a state “on the move” with increased funding for public higher education, Freeland said, “Make no mistake: The burden of student loan debt could derail us from achieving our goals.”

Make no mistake: The first $20,000-per-year freshman is right around the corner at our state universities. Many other potential students will choose to skip college to save money instead. State universities have been, and still remain, a good educational value. But it’s in the interest of all of us in the Commonwealth to help more students take advantage of it.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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