In the school's annual budget battle with the state Legislature, which played out in rare form last week on Beacon Hill, it's common to hear University of Massachusetts officials call the university system one of the most underfunded in the country.
But a Globe review of government support for a group of UMass's self-selected peers shows the university system in the middle of the bunch, trailing larger systems in Maryland, Illinois, and California but ahead of those in Missouri and Colorado.
UMass receives 17 percent of its $3 billion annual budget from the state, accounting for about $7,300 per student across the system. By comparison, Maryland receives 25 percent and Colorado 6 percent from their respective states.
While comparing university funding structures is difficult because each system calculates its finances differently, it is clear that state support for public colleges nationwide is shrinking even as university budgets continue to grow. That has prompted debate about when UMass and other public universities will essentially no longer be public institutions.
Public colleges in Massachusetts face an added disadvantage. In a state studded with elite private colleges, lawmakers historically have lacked the political will or sense of urgency to bolster the public system, even though UMass and the nine other state colleges educate far more Bay State residents than the privates do.
Newly installed UMass president Martin T. Meehan is campaigning for more state support, arguing that the five-campus system deserves more taxpayer dollars if it is to remain competitive with other top public systems.
"It's obvious from the numbers that Massachusetts is a state that has not made the kind of commitment to its public research university that most other states in the country have made," said Meehan, who went toe-to-toe with lawmakers last week for an extra $10.9 million for the system.
As state support shrinks, UMass and other schools have turned to other sources for revenue, fueling a trend some call the privatization of public universities.
UMass and its peers increasingly rely on out-of-state and international students, who generally pay higher tuition, and on partnerships with companies that fund special projects. Many colleges are also raising tuition and student fees.
UMass has also tapped its online education program to generate extra income and has looked for efficiencies such as consolidating cellphone bills across the system.
UMass is also headed down the road to greater independence as it negotiates a new tuition payment system that will allow each campus to keep tuition revenue it collects from students. Previously, the campuses had to remit the tuition annually to the state, then bargain to get it back from lawmakers.
Although the UMass budget has increased in the past three years, Meehan pointed to a period from 1999 to 2013 when state aid to the system stayed nearly flat while enrollment grew by 13,500 students.
In Maryland, which UMass considers a peer, the state funds a quarter of the 11-campus system's budget, which allows students at Maryland's flagship campus in College Park to pay a $10,000 tuition annually compared with $14,000 at UMass Amherst.
While Maryland enjoys more state support, that system's chancellor, Robert Caret, whom Meehan succeeded at UMass, said he believes taxpayer subsidies for public colleges will never return to the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, and families will pay more of the cost. "The more you go east and the more you go north the more privatized it has become," Caret said.
Forty years ago, government financial aid covered more of the cost of public college education and was made up in greater part by grants rather than loans, which today leave many students saddled with debt.
In Massachusetts, public colleges now spend more of their own budgets on financial aid to make up for the lack of state support for scholarships. UMass has done that, Meehan said, by raising student fees, which this year rose by $900 after two years of no increases.
"UMass has done more with less, but it's not a sustainable long-term financial plan," Meehan said.
One major challenge UMass faces is that it must finance many of its own building and maintenance projects, leaving the university highly leveraged and with a nearly exhausted borrowing capacity.
In Connecticut, meanwhile, legislative support allowed the University of Connecticut, a smaller system than UMass, to launch a massive building effort beginning in 1995 that continues today.
The state of Connecticut has committed to issuing $4.3 billion in bonds and has issued $2 billion so far, compared with the $1 billion UMass received the last time it was granted bonding authority, under Governor Deval Patrick.
"It's twice as much for a smaller system, with the state carrying all of the debt service and UConn having control over the capital program," said Scott A. Jordan, UConn's chief financial officer and a UMass alumnus who spent many years working for the Massachusetts government.
Overall in Massachusetts, state funding for all public colleges, including community colleges and the nine state universities, is 23 percent below prerecession levels, even though it rose 5 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to data collected annually by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
"The truth is, most states can't afford to fund their institutions of higher education the way they once did. They've got too many pressures," said Matthew Lambert, vice president for university advancement at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, who wrote a book about public universities' trend toward privatization.
The question then becomes how much power states should have to regulate universities, since they contribute a shrinking portion of their budgets. Lambert said most lawmakers understand this and are willing to grant schools more regulatory freedom.
In the future, Lambert said, universities will have to rely more on revenue-generating techniques that have long been common among private colleges. That includes philanthropy and relying more on scholarships, rather than low tuition, to make college affordable.
Meehan said UMass needs more state support but can't wait forever.
"I believe strongly that UMass has to continue to be great and get better, increase our reputation, and that's whether the state funds us or not," he said.