Graduating from college is still a ticket to the middle class — but for too many poor students in Massachusetts, public colleges and universities are farther out of reach than ever. Those institutions should be the most accessible — but tuition and fees have spiraled upward at the University of Massachusetts, state universities, and community colleges.
At UMass Amherst, the state’s flagship public university, tuition and fees cost $16,952 a year for Massachusetts residents. At Salem State, the in-state cost is $11,978.80. (That’s before the costs of room and board and textbooks.) Federal Pell Grants help many low-income students but usually don’t cover the whole cost; meanwhile, state financial aid in Massachusetts is far skimpier than the national average. According to the state Department of Higher Education, about 30 percent of community college students and three-quarters of state university and UMass students take out federal loans, leaving them with years of debt.
Even before the pandemic, enrollment rates were falling — especially among Black and Latino students.
But the passage in November of Question 1 — the so-called millionaires tax, which is expected to generate as much as $2 billion in new revenues for the state’s education and transportation systems — provides a rare opportunity to disrupt the cycle of rising costs and shrinking opportunities in the state’s public higher education system.
Chris Gabrieli, the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, is pitching a $400 million investment in public higher education using Question 1′s proceeds. His plan, which the state board of education is expected to discuss later this month, would provide a $2,000 stipend for low-income students and pay for textbooks.
More financial aid would help more students from disadvantaged backgrounds enroll, and remain, in college. But it’s not a panacea. Students also need support once they get to campus. Gabrieli’s plan would also give the institutions $2,000 per needy student they enroll in order to provide more student support, such as financial help in emergencies.
The plan would also take some baby steps to change the way public universities are funded in Massachusetts. Higher education funding has historically followed institutions, not students. Funding levels have been influenced by political considerations. Providing money to public university students directly would be a step toward making the state’s higher education spending more rational, transparent, and responsive to student needs instead of institutional ones. So would two other of Gabrieli’s ideas: basing half of state funding for universities on their enrollment and limiting the ability of public institutions to disguise their tuition increases as “fees.”
Lingering over the higher education system is the fact that enrollment in public higher education in Massachusetts has been declining for a decade. Providing more financial aid for students — and giving universities an incentive to attract more students by basing their funding partly on enrollment — could turn around those trends. But if it doesn’t, and the system needs to downsize or consolidate, moving in the direction of enrollment-based funding would at least take some of the politics out of those decisions.
There are many demands on the Question 1 money, which can also be used for K-12 education and transportation. In an interview with the Globe editorial board, Gabrieli acknowledged the dollar figures he’s proposing are arbitrary, based on his perception of what is politically feasible to ask for. But students at public universities have been an afterthought in Massachusetts for too long, and they deserve a place at the table when lawmakers divide up the cash.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.