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College costs go up and students suffer

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Imagine the look of delight as the news arrives in the mail. "Congratulations!'' the letter begins.

Your chest swells with pride as you absorb the great news: Your favorite student has won the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship.

What does that mean? That kid you're shipping off to Bridgewater State or UMass Amherst in the fall will attend college tuition-free! High-fives are exchanged. Champagne corks pop. That ship of yours? It's just come in.

Then you read the fine print, or check the bursar's web site, and the party's suddenly over. Do you know what it costs for an in-state student to go to UMass Amherst each year? It's $26,445. And how much of that is tuition? Just north of $1,700 a year.


No one would sneeze at $1,700, but it's an anemic scholarship and, actually, it's more than that: It's emblematic of how much we care about public higher education in this state. Or how little.

I've been thinking about that this week ever since the Globe ran a story about a young woman from Lowell, a great student with dreams of a career in medicine, who resorted to panhandling in a shopping mall last month to pay for her college education.

It's an extreme example, but the numbers that drive that desperation are pretty extreme, too.

Consider this: In 1988, the average grant from the state's primary needs-based grant program paid for 85 percent of a student's education. That number today? Take a deep breath. It's 9 percent.

And when you examine where Massachusetts ranks among other states in terms of per-student spending, the numbers are almost equally underwhelming. Try stenciling this onto your Westfield State T-shirt: "We're Number 21! We're Number 21!"

"Public higher education has always been a stepchild,'' Richard Freeland told me this week. "The presumption is that we're so strong in higher education and have these great private institutions that we don't have to invest in public higher education. We've always done it on a shoestring and just enough to fulfill a social obligation — almost a social welfare project. That's a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much.''


No one knows more about higher education in our state than Freeland. He's devoted his life to it. Until last year, he was the state's commissioner of higher education. Before that he was, for a decade, the president of Northeastern University. Early in his career, he spent 22 years as an administrator at UMass Boston.

So when he calls out the state for its mediocre support of its colleges and universities, he speaks with uncommon authority.

Should a state like ours, with a knowledge-based economy, spend less than Mississippi?

"We ought to be in the top 10 in terms of per-student funding,'' Freeland said. "And it's not beyond our reach. It's a political winner. It's been neglected for more than a generation. And it's desperately needed.''

The applause you hear from those comments is coming from people like Pam Eddinger. She's the president at Bunker Hill Community College, where state support has slipped dramatically while student fees head sharply in the opposite direction.

"You can't keep telling us that we need to produce more graduates and then give us less funds to do it,'' she said.

One of the problems here — perhaps the chief problem — is one of political will. When state support for higher education stagnates, phones do not ring off the hook on Beacon Hill, where you're more likely to see politicians sporting the colors of the Boston College Eagles than the UMass Minutemen.


But that might be about to change. Because an important constituency — a constituency that cannot and will not be ignored — is demanding it.

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council is reporting that the state's tech and computer science industries have 17 job openings for every recent graduate in that field.

Mohamad Ali, chief executive of Boston-based Carbonite, a leader in cloud backup and recovery software, said his firm tried to hire 150 people last year, and had to look to places like Salt Lake City and Toronto for half of them.

"We live in the shadows of MIT and Harvard, but they cannot put out the number of people we need,'' Ali told me. "We're kind of elitist here. We're enamored with private higher education. We forget that we have to have the richness of public education, too.''

Richness. That has a nice ring to it. It's a word that, for a generation, has not applied to the colleges and universities we call our own.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at