UMass poised to raise fees by 5 to 8 percent
After freezing student fees for two consecutive years, the University of Massachusetts is poised to raise the cost of attendance sharply for the fall semester, saying an increase is unavoidable without a substantial jump in state funding.
As state lawmakers work to craft a new state budget, university trustees Wednesday recommended that tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduates increase by more than $900 at UMass Amherst, the state's flagship university, and nearly $1,000 at UMass Lowell. The proposed hikes, which include a 5 percent fee increase and jumps in other mandatory costs, would raise student expenses by almost 7 percent at Amherst, and nearly 8 percent at Lowell and UMass Dartmouth.
The increases could be reduced, depending on the amount of state funding UMass receives in next year's budget.
The recommendation, approved by the trustees' finance committee, goes before the full board June 17. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
"The decision to increase fees is not taken lightly and is never our first option,'' university president Robert Caret said. "But given the current fiscal environment in the state and the structural deficit that the Commonwealth is having to address, it is important that we give students and their families enough time to plan accordingly."
Given the likelihood of more limited state funding, a number of other public colleges and universities are poised to raise fees. Fitchburg State University is proposing to raise student costs by more than 7 percent, and Bridgewater State may boost its bills by more than 6 percent, according to the state Department of Higher Education.
At UMass, students said the tuition increases would take a financial toll, forcing them to take out more in loans and probably pricing out some families altogether.
"I'm really disappointed," said Charlotte Kelly, a senior at UMass Amherst who spoke out against the fee increase at the trustees meeting. "We're already seeing a student debt crisis in this country."
If the prices go up the full amount, the cost of attending UMass Amherst, including room and board, for state residents would rise to $25,600, a 6 percent jump.
Kelly said she and other students plan to lobby legislators in hopes of increasing funding, and also called on UMass to cut back in other areas to ease some of the student burden.
"We're going to fight this tooth and nail," she said.
The increase would create "major hardship" for students from low-income backgrounds, she told the trustees.
Student Jeremy Tibbetts urged trustees to "explore all alternative financing options" before imposing new fees.
"Increasing costs for students must be the last possible option for this committee and the board," he said at the meeting, according to a transcript.
The Baker administration also called on UMass to avoid hefty increases, saying agencies across state government are tightening their belts.
"The Baker administration proposed a sizable budget increase for the UMass system and hopes UMass officials can find savings to avoid these large increases in student charges," said Laura Keehner Rigas, a spokesman for the state's education office. Baker's budget proposal included a 3 percent budget increase for the five-campus system.
UMass requested $578 million in state funding, the amount university leaders said was necessary to subsidize 50 percent of total costs, with students and their families paying the other half.
But with the state facing a projected $1.8 billion shortfall in next fiscal year, the university is likely to receive a good deal less. The House budget now authorizes $519 million, while the Senate budget provides $538 million. This year, UMass received $511 million.
If the Legislature provides the higher figure, along with an additional $11 million to finance union contracts, the proposed 5 percent tuition and fee increase could be cut in half, officials said.
About 20 percent of the tuition increase would be put toward financial aid.
Over the past two years, state funding for UMass climbed by $100 million, allowing the university to freeze tuition and lower the average net cost of attendance.
But even after the increase, state funding per student at UMass Amherst was slightly more than $9,000, far less than subsidies at flagship campuses of the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina, Caret noted in a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe.
Caret is leaving at the end of the month to become chancellor of the University System of Maryland, to be replaced by UMass Lowell Chancellor Martin J. Meehan.
Tom Sannicandro, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, said lawmakers would "do as well for UMass as we can."
"We need college to be affordable," said Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat.
"This is about giving kids a chance to fulfill their dream and get the job they want. Massachusetts is an innovation economy. We need educated employees."
Natalie Higgins, who directs the Public Higher Education Network Of Massachusetts, an advocacy group, said the likely fee increases were disappointing and would undercut the progress of the past two years.
“Fifty-fifty worked really well,” she said. “We can’t keep pricing students out.”