Higher education leaders lauded Governor Maura Healey’s focus on students after her first budget proposal included a measure that would increase spending on public colleges and universities by nearly 25 percent and keep prices flat across four years — but some said more needs to be done to fight skyrocketing costs.
Healey’s budget, released Wednesday, would freeze tuition within the University of Massachusetts’s five campuses, so seniors will pay roughly the same amount that they paid as freshmen. At the state’s nine public colleges and universities, where tuition is often a fraction of the price of fees, those charges would be locked in to keep prices stable.
Healey’s plan would give students “the opportunity for some predictability, or the ability for families and individuals to plan, to have incentives to complete degrees in a more timely fashion,” said Mary Grant, the president of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Rising salaries and costs of benefits for faculty and staff are the biggest drivers of increasing costs for students, according to Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and cofounder of the nonprofit Transforming Education.
Campuses are also facing inflation just like everyone else, he said. They are paying for expanded student support services, particularly since the pandemic, and often have to pay off debt on buildings and facilities, Gabrieli said.
Gabrieli said Healey’s $59 million proposal is in line with a call for transparency and predictability in pricing that was part of a higher education finance framework the Board of Higher Education unanimously approved in December. He added, though, that there must be other measures to rein in rising costs.
“It is incredibly important at this moment to make clear to families that we’re going to take action as a state to ensure college is credibly affordable to them, and a rate lock is … one approach to that,” Gabrieli said. “At the same time, over the next few years we’ve got to take on cost drivers in our education system that make higher ed ever” harder for families to afford.
The proposal received praise from Claudio Martinez, executive director of Zero Debt Massachusetts, a grassroots group that advocates for solutions to the student debt crisis.
“Kudos to the governor,” Martinez said. “It’s time that we start reinvesting in higher education. … There’s no better investment than education when you want to keep a democracy and a civil society healthy and productive.”
Vatsady Sivongxay, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance — Education Fund, said Healey’s new education funding “would make a real difference for students and help our ... public college campuses tackle the many challenges that students face.”
However, more needs to be done, she said.
“Our public college students are still stuck taking out tens of thousands of dollars in debt to afford a college degree, even when working multiple jobs to get by,” Sivongxay said in a statement.
The tuition proposal is part of a plan to funnel $360 million in revenue from the state’s new millionaire’s tax into higher education, with $93 million going to expand financial aid and $20 million to pay for community college for students 25 years or older.
Narrowly passed by voters as a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, the new tax increases the state’s 5 percent income tax rate to 9 percent on annual income exceeding $1 million, which could generate billions of new dollars for the state in the years ahead.
State lawmakers said they were still reviewing the governor’s $55.5 billion budget blueprint and assessing the details of her proposals, but any investment in public higher education is welcome.
State Senator Joanne M. Comerford, co-chair of the Legislature’s higher education committee, said the “budget was packed with good news for public higher education.”
“I love that in the Legislature and the governor’s office we are focused together on the kind of transformative investment that will be needed in public higher education for now and in the future,” the Northampton Democrat said.
State Senator Anne Gobi, a vice chair of the higher education committee, said Healey’s budget includes “a lot of good investments that make a real difference in people’s lives.”
“Trying to help out people who want to continue and get back into school and get into the workforce pipeline is a good thing for them and our entire economy,” the Spencer Democrat said.
The cost of undergraduate tuition for in-state students at the University of Massachusetts’s flagship campus in Amherst has more than tripled since 2000. It reached $16,186 this year, with another $766 in mandatory fees, according to a spokesman for the UMass system. The average UMass Amherst student receives a financial aid grant of roughly $10,000.
If the proposed budget allocation is approved, tuition would be locked in for students entering this fall at the 2023-24 rate, which will be set by university trustees in the spring.
In the past three years, UMass Amherst undergraduate tuition has risen an average of 1 percent per year, the spokesman said.
The proposed tuition freeze “is part of a broader effort to create economic opportunities across the state and keep talent here,” said Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system.
Meehan said having a guaranteed price across four years will give the UMass campuses a “unique” appeal that the universities can use to market themselves to prospective students.
“I think it’s going to help us attract even higher quality students,” Meehan said. “I think it’s going to be great for the Commonwealth, but also great for our students.”
Meehan said similar tuition freeze plans had failed in other states when there wasn’t sufficient funding set aside in year two, but Healey’s budget provides the money in advance so the prices can stay locked, with $24 million set aside for the UMass system.
At MassArt, one of the state’s nine public colleges and universities, the current total for tuition and fees is $14,570 for in-state students, according to a college spokesman. High-need students eligible for Pell grants, who make up about 30 percent of the college’s enrollment, can receive up to $16,000 in federal, state, and MassArt grants, the spokesman said.
Grant, MassArt’s president, said for years she’s heard students saying they wish they knew how much their educations will wind up costing them.
“This is changing the dialogue from seeing higher ed as an expense to higher ed as an investment,” Grant said. “I think that’s so encouraging.”