There’s an unusual ritual that takes place at commencements for the University of Massachusetts Boston: Students who are the first in their family to attend college are asked to stand and be recognized.
“More than half our students stand up,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor. “That’s not true of other schools.”
As expected, the UMass Board of Trustees raised tuition and fees for UMass students on Thursday. The increase was the result of level funding from the state, which comes as salaries and other expenses are on the rise. The only way to make up the resulting $85 million budget gap, trustees decided, was to charge students more for college.
"It makes college further out of reach for students who already work so hard to be there,” O’Brien said Thursday. “Our students take care of kids, they take care of parents, they’re first-generation students, and this kind of increase hits them the hardest.”
By Beacon Hill standards, rejecting pleas for increased funding was simply business as usual. But that fact only highlights the huge disconnect between policy makers and the people who struggle with the effects of those policies. Ask anyone at UMass Boston and they will tell you that, for their students, a $750 annual hike could be the difference between staying or dropping out.
“Many of my students are working full time and they’re tired,” said Marlene Kim, an economics professor and president of the Faculty Staff Union, which opposed the increase. “Fewer will be able to attend, or if they do they’ll have to work more hours or go into more debt. Debt levels are at record high levels already for students going to college. Many of our students are first-generation college students and are struggling to pay the tuition and fees they pay now.”
Many argue that the UMass system is chronically underfunded — though slightly less so than in the past. During the past three years tuition has risen only slightly. But with a collective bargaining agreement that will consume an additional $30 million over the next year, and other unavoidable increases that will suck up about $15 million more, a deficit for the university system was virtually assured.
Meanwhile the state — which has its own deficit estimated at $900 million — essentially forced the increase on to the students. The average increase works out to 5.8 percent, though the rise in tuition will vary from campus to campus.
UMass president Martin Meehan — whose tenure so far has been one long fight for more resources — fought unsuccessfully to stave off the hike, calling on the Legislature to invest more in the state’s public colleges and universities. He pointed out that he has cut $4 million from the budget of the president’s office in an effort to demonstrate fiscal responsibility.
Meehan said part of the tuition increase will be earmarked for financial aid. The hope is that more generous financial aid packages can balance out the boost in cost, at least for the most needy students. He also faulted the Legislature for not fully funding salary increases for faculty and staff.
“We fought hard for a bigger appropriation,” Meehan said.
More budget cuts are likely, he said. Some teaching positions will likely be frozen, and services such as student advising could be trimmed, though he deemed that essential.
Meehan is just the latest UMass leader to bemoan Beacon Hill’s lack of commitment to the system. For a state that so prizes higher education, paying for public colleges and universities has been a perennial fight.
But as the cost of private colleges outpaces the resources of so many families, those public colleges become more important than ever. Maintaining their affordability is paramount. There’s no such thing as an insignificant increase.
O’Brien, the political science professor, said she worried about what the increase says to her financially strapped students.
“It sends a message to them that they’re not valued,” she said. “They’re already working so hard.”