Any university would be hard pressed to think up a better student than Rohan Nijhawan. He’s intelligent, driven, and loyal to his school, UMass Boston. His near-perfect 3.78 GPA speaks for itself.
But if, as expected, the University of Massachusetts board votes to raise tuition Thursday, Nijhawan is nervous about the consequences.
The 26-year-old senior, who was born in India, already works 30 to 40 hours per week. He pays for school through a patchwork of scholarships, grants, family assistance, and his job as a freelance Web designer.
In Nijhawan’s mind, it’s a simple calculation. If tuition increases, “I would probably have to work more, which would impact my grades.”
He is one of several UMass Boston students interviewed this week who are decrying the prospect of paying more. The university system will probably raise the cost at all of its campuses by at least 5 percent, officials have said. Last year, the cost for in-state students to attend the Boston campus was about $13,000.
While the hike will affect all five campuses, UMass Boston students say it will fall particularly hard on them. The college has long prided itself on educating low-income and first-generation college students, as well as immigrants.
Nearly 50 percent of UMass Boston students are minorities, according to university data.
“It’s neglecting your core clientele,” said Katie Baima, a UMass Boston senior who lives in Allston. “The reason the school started was to help people like me and people in local neighborhoods who are poor get the same kind of education that kids who can afford to go to college get.”
The commitment to serving poorer students is what many love most about the university. Baima takes the question of affordability personally.
“I seem so disillusioned by it now that it’s hard to think that I was so moved and believed in the mission so much,” she said. “College shouldn’t be something that only rich people can do.”
Baima, 25, has made the dean’s list every semester. And, like Nijhawan, higher tuition means she will probably have to work more to pay for school.
She said she already works two jobs during the school year, for about 35 hours per week, and worries she’ll have less time to devote to her classes. That would endanger her scholarship, she said.
“I simply can’t afford to study less,” she said.
Nijhawan and Baima both work freelance jobs — Baima as a design consultant — that allow them to work during the odd hours they’re free. But each said the extra hours still might not be enough and they could have to take out loans after tuition increases.
Baima, who spent her first two years at the private Emmanuel College, said she already has nearly $100,000 in student loan debt.
“I think of it as Monopoly money at this point,” she said. “I’m going to be paying that off the rest of my life.”
Still, neither wants to leave UMass Boston. They praised the dedication of professors and, Baima said, it remains the best deal in town.
UMass officials said they treat tuition increases as a last resort and are always hesitant when raising prices.
“Certainly we’re not unmindful of the pressures [a] tuition increase puts on students and their families, and it’s something always approached with significant reluctance,” said Robert Connolly, university spokesman.
Despite the administration’s best efforts, Connolly said,
UMass was unable to secure a higher level of state funding for the coming year. Facing the costs of new union contracts, debt service, and employee fringe benefits, the UMass system is looking to address an $85 million shortfall, Connolly said. The university-wide tuition hike will cover about a quarter of this, he said.
One measure Connolly said the university is taking to help its poorest students is directing about 30 percent of the money generated by the cost increase to financial aid.
“The goal there is to blunt the effect and in some cases totally eliminate it,” he said.
Nacirina Brito, a rising sophomore from Chelsea, is waiting anxiously to see what her funding package will hold. An increase in tuition will force her to either take on debt or take a year off, she said.
“I might not be able to return to school, which would be a nightmare,” she said.
Brito, who was born in Cape Verde, said dropping out would crush her grandmother, who brought her and her family to the United States.
But she might not have an option because, like others, she said she is running out of hours in the day.
During the school year, Brito is on campus five days a week. She wedges homework between classes, before heading to one of her two jobs. She often works 40 hours a week — weekends, too.
One of Brito’s jobs is with Jumpstart, a nonprofit focused on helping children from low-income households succeed in school. She said she sees herself in many of the children.
Brito said her mother dropped out of school and doesn’t want the same for Brito or her brother.
“I loved seeing the smiles and proud faces of my parents when I graduated high school,” she said. “I want to relive that moment once I’m done with college.”