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IDEAS

Public colleges should be truly public again

We face a shortage of college-educated workers, but many potential students are daunted by the cost. It may be time to throw open the gates for in-state students.

OPINION: Make public college more affordable
Globe columnist Kara Miller talks about skyrocketing higher education costs around Massachusetts, and how to make public education more affordable.

When is a public university no longer public? You could argue we’re there.

For decades, talented high school students could essentially walk into top-rated university systems, regardless of income. In California, state universities were tuition-free until 1970. The City University of New York system didn’t collect tuition until 1976.

In Massachusetts, which charged a flat tuition fee of $100 for in-state students at UMass Amherst during most of the 1950s, parents of fairly modest means could shuttle their kids off to a public university for a fantastic education.

In 1985, a family earning the median income in Massachusetts (just over $67,000) had to spend 6 percent of that income to send a child to UMass Amherst.

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By 2021, a family earning the median income in Massachusetts (just under $87,000) had to cough up 35 percent of their income to send a child to UMass Amherst.

We have been steadily “shifting the cost burden to students and their families,” argues Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “There’s a real intergenerational equity issue here that I don’t think gets talked about nearly enough.”

The problem is particularly acute at a time when many states, including Massachusetts, can’t find enough workers: The nonprofit think tank MassINC anticipates that we’ll have nearly 200,000 fewer college-educated workers in 2030 than we had in 2022.

Our population is aging, and lots of folks are retiring. But the high cost of living makes recruiting people from other states tough.

As Tricia Lederer, the director of communications and advocacy at the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, has bluntly told me: “You have to turn to your homegrown talent pool. You’re never going to fill your needs by recruiting from out of state.”

Unfortunately, demographics aren’t in our favor. Declines in the number of students — caused by decades of falling birth rates — have been exacerbated by students dropping out of college during the pandemic or never making the leap to higher ed in the first place. In the fall of 2022, there were 150,000 fewer first-year college students in the United States than in the fall of 2019.

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Which is why it’s crucial to open the doors of public colleges and universities to more segments of the population than ever before. Relying on well-heeled suburban kids to go to college — and fill jobs that require bachelor’s degrees — just isn’t going to cut it.

But public universities can be costly.

In Massachusetts, a larger percentage of public university students owe money at graduation than their private school peers — and the median amount they owe is higher, according to calculations by Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute, a higher education advocacy group.

For those facing years, or decades, of loan repayments, the heralded “college premium” — the fact that college grads earn more — can start to feel like false advertising.

Public schools are supposed to represent “equality of opportunity,” Harnisch says. “For so many students today, they look at those words and see a hollow slogan.”

In some states, the majority of funding for state universities no longer comes from the state. Nearly half the cost of education at UMass Amherst is now covered by tuition and fees, rather than the government.

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And though students and their families are the first to feel the pain of higher tuition, that pain will soon radiate out. If qualified students can’t easily afford public universities, hospitals won’t have enough doctors. Labs won’t have enough technicians. Schools won’t have enough teachers.

One state stepping up to the challenge is New Mexico, where students can now attend public colleges and universities tuition-free under the Opportunity Scholarship Act of 2022. The state has seen enrollment jump more than 6 percent this year, following years of declines.

The Campus Pond at UMass Amherst.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In Massachusetts, there are plenty of programs designed to help low-income students pay for college. But the programs can be difficult to sort through. Somehow, lots of well-intentioned aid isn’t reaching those who need it. In fact, young people in Massachusetts have one of the highest student debt burdens in the country: The state ranked fifth in 2019.

To be fair, states have trimmed higher ed budgets for a reason. As health care has gobbled up a growing chunk of local and national funds, there have been fewer dollars for everything else. And health care’s voraciousness will likely intensify as Baby Boomers continue to require more and more medical care.

But shortchanging public colleges and universities can create a vicious downward spiral. “When you’re taking money away from higher education, you’re hurting the long-term growth of the economy in the state,” says Phillip Levine, a professor of economics at Wellesley College. “A more productive workforce generates more output, generates more tax revenue.”

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So what do we do?

Harnisch offers a back-to-the-future solution: Give in-state kids the same sort of compellingly low tuition rates that many states did 50 years ago. And do it for everyone, rich or poor — though, he notes, poorer students should be able to access aid to cover any expenses they can’t afford.

In Massachusetts, that would set us back between $400 million and $1 billion a year, according to higher education experts. (The amount would depend on the approach we took; there are various flavors of “free college” or “almost-free college.”)

But would it make sense for the state to foot the bill for everyone, even the wealthy?

Harnisch argues that universally low tuition engenders goodwill. It makes people feel that state colleges and universities are “a public good that middle-class families and also upper-middle-class families can benefit from. And their support — their political support — for higher education matters.”

This isn’t a new idea. One of the reasons Social Security is the single most popular entitlement program in the country is that both rich and poor seniors get checks.

Plus, having a high sticker price for college tuition and then offering financial aid to some students brings on a slew of problems. The paperwork for financial aid can be daunting. Students may be reluctant to commit to a school if they can’t be sure they’ll ultimately get the money. And some families who really can’t afford tuition will inevitably be deemed slightly too wealthy to get aid.

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Imboden argues that students who don’t know if they’ll get enough aid commonly decide to put their education on hold. “And often they don’t come back,” she says.

There’s also headline confusion. When students hear that the in-state, on-campus price of attending a UMass school orbits around $30,000 a year, they may immediately count themselves out.

Over the last 50 years, America has inched away from its public colleges and universities, hoping that middle class families could write fatter checks and poorer families could stitch together a crazy quilt of loans and financial aid.

But hope, in this case, has proved to be a terrible strategy. It has buried young people under mountains of debt or deterred them from pursuing higher education altogether. And it’s robbing our economy of enormous potential.

Facing demographic peril, and desperately in need of college graduates, we may simply need to throw open the gates.


Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.