University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan on Monday pledged to work to make college degrees more affordable in an era when the cost of even a public education is becoming increasingly out of reach for students.
Among his plans, Meehan said he would expand online education programs and strengthen partnerships with businesses. And he challenged the five UMass campuses to raise a combined $200 million toward financial aid for students over the next decade.
“Affordability, which is central to our mission, is no longer guaranteed by our status as a public university,” Meehan said.
His remarks on college affordability were timely. A report released last week found that students leave the state’s four-year public colleges with nearly as much debt as do students who graduate from four-year private schools in Massachusetts.
Meehan spoke Monday evening at his second annual update on the state of the five-campus system, which has 75,000 students, including 57,000 undergraduates. The event took place at the UMass Club on the 32nd floor of the One Beacon office building downtown and was followed by a reception.
The speech was intended as much for the public as for the elected officials in the room, whom Meehan lobbies for funding. The UMass system receives just 20 percent of its budget from the state, he said. In the audience were Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Senate President Harriette Chandler, as well as other state lawmakers and UMass trustees, chancellors, and students. “I want to be clear: This lack of funding is not a partisan issue, nor is it unique to Massachusetts,” Meehan said.
Meehan touted the system’s research advancements, diversity, and popularity, but he focused most of his 20-minute speech on affordability, pledging five specific ways he plans to try to bring the cost down.
Undergraduate in-state tuition at UMass Amherst is $15,411, which does not include room and board. At UMass Boston it is $13,828.
When the governor was approached after the speech by a reporter to ask about the state government’s role in funding UMass, his aides whisked him away, saying he did not have time to answer the question. In a written statement, a spokesman pointed to programs already underway.
“The Baker-Polito Administration has introduced new programs and investments to make college more affordable for students . . . and was proud to propose increasing college scholarship funding by more than $7 million to fully cover the remaining tuition and fees for community college students who qualify for Pell Grants,” said Brendan Moss. “The administration will continue to pursue flexible and cost-effective post-secondary options to help students earn a degree and skill set needed to secure good-paying jobs at a significantly lower cost.”
DeLeo said the Legislature should find ways to make higher education more affordable. But when asked whether it should devote more state dollars, he was noncommittal.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser, appointed by Baker, said the state should design new models that are less expensive, such as online education or spending the first two years at a community college.
Asked whether the state should devote more money to higher education in general, he replied: “There just isn’t that much money to put behind it that would solve this problem.”
According to the report on affordability that was released last week, between 2004 and 2016 the average student-loan debt for graduates of Massachusetts’ public four-year colleges and universities rose by 77 percent, faster than in any other state in the country except Delaware. The report was prepared by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning research group that advocates for more state funding for higher education.
Deep cuts in scholarships, reductions in state funding, and increases in tuition and fees have shifted more of the burden of paying for college to students and families, the report said.
It found that graduates of the University of Massachusetts system and state universities leave with about $30,250 in debt, just 7 percent less than the $32,355 of debt held by graduates of private colleges.
Meehan, a former member of Congress, said the topic of affordability for him is personal. He was able to enter public service because he graduated from UMass Lowell with no debt, he said. But 40 years ago, Meehan could pay his full tuition — $600 — by working nights, weekends, and summers, he added.
Meehan, who is in his third year as system president, said he spent the past month visiting all five campuses to talk with students, professors, and administrators about affordability.
He said his top priority is to expand its online education programs, which cost less to deliver, and use new revenue from that effort to control costs for all students.
Second, he said he wants to expand partnerships with nonprofits that work to increase access to college for low-income students. Third, he said, he wants to strengthen partnerships with businesses, which he said could provide scholarships, paid internships, and tuition repayment programs.
Fourth, he challenged the campuses to raise more private money for scholarships. Meehan touted a bill filed in the Legislature that would offer a state match for private contributions for scholarships.
Last, Meehan pledged to do more to advocate at the federal level for students about college affordability. He said he plans to lobby against federal legislation that would reduce federal financial aid and eliminate loan forgiveness for public service.
“This threatens the very mission of public higher education and we will fight it with all that we have,” he said.
Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.