Until recently, Massachusetts students of limited means could readily find a path to the state’s flagship public university and earn a degree that would likely catapult them up the economic ladder. But increasingly, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is moving out of reach for the state’s best and brightest if they don’t have a big enough bank account.
Rising tuition costs, fewer federal loan options, and a dip in financial aid have left some high school seniors in Massachusetts struggling this year to come up with thousands of additional dollars to pay for tuition.
After federal loans, institutional aid, and work-study money have been factored in, some of the neediest admitted freshmen will still have to come up with $8,130 on average this year if they want a seat at UMass Amherst, compared with $5,500 each of the last two years — a 48 percent increase. For some, that out-of-pocket expense is even bigger.
“This is not a good look. . . . A public university is supposed to be affordable,” said Kevin Fudge, the director of consumer advocacy at American Student Assistance, who is advising a single mother who has to finance $14,000 in costs annually to send her daughter to UMass Amherst. “A $14,000 bill for a high-needs student at a public university is pretty surprising. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I hope it’s not the start of a new trend.”
UMass Amherst officials said the university continues to support low-income state students and offers a much more generous financial aid package than many other flagship schools across the country.
“We stack up well,” to other large public universities, said Ed Blaguszewski, a UMass Amherst spokesman, when it comes to helping its low-income students. “Our commitment to this is longstanding.”
But officials acknowledge that the financial burden on families climbed for the incoming freshmen class. University officials blamed several factors.
The estimated in-state tuition for UMass Amherst for the upcoming school year increased by about $1,300, or more than 4 percent over last year, to $31,330. In addition, the federal government ended the Perkins Loan program, which provided low-interest loans of about $1,000 to needy students. The school also slightly decreased the need-based grants it offers students by $250 to $15,700.
Taken together, that means the neediest freshmen will have to cover on average about $8,130 of the costs annually, according to UMass Amherst’s calculations.
That spike is much higher than at UMass Lowell.
Incoming needy freshmen will have to cover $2,600 of the tuition costs at the Lowell campus this fall, compared to $2,200 last year and $1,950 in 2016.
UMass Amherst has traditionally been more competitive and expensive than the other campuses, such as UMass Lowell and UMass Boston. But Lowell also provides more grants and institutional aid on average to its needy students, about $18,820 to offset the $29,920 in tuition and fees.
UMass Lowell officials said the school also hasn’t relied heavily on the Perkins Loan and stopped automatically offering it to incoming students in 2015, because of fears the government would end the program.
For low-income students aiming for UMass Amherst, the options are limited, college admissions counselors said.
They can choose to take on more debt, such as parent-student loans or private loans. They can also apply for as many scholarships as possible in the hope of covering the difference between the costs at UMass Amherst and the aid the school has offered them. Or they can take on a part-time job.
“I worked really hard all high school to be hit with this reality, ‘Oh, you can’t afford it,’ ” said Yaleiny Feliz, a senior at Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain. “It feels that there’s such a heavy burden on students who are low income. It’s a setup for failure.”
Feliz, whose mother is a medical assistant and still paying off her own student loans, received grants and a federal loan to help offset the cost but was still left to pay $8,000 on her own next year.
This week, she learned that a scholarship will help her cover some of those costs; she will also have to take out a more expensive unsubsidized federal loan.
Across the country, students such as Feliz are increasingly having to scramble to afford their state’s flagship public university or are being shut out, said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst with New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Faced with declining financial support from state legislators, many of these universities are directing their limited financial aid dollars to attract wealthier students, many of them from out-of-state, who will pay more in tuition and help the campus climb up in the competitive rankings, burnishing their reputations, Burd said.
“Public flagship universities were meant to serve the children of all of the citizens in a state, not just the financial elite,” Burd said. “Unfortunately, more and more of these institutions are increasingly spending financial aid to attract wealthy students, while closing their doors to those who need the help the most.”
UMass Amherst continues to spend a bulk of its nearly $100 million in institutional aid money on low-income students, and more than three-quarters of its undergraduates are from Massachusetts. But the school’s share of money devoted to students without need has been climbing dramatically in recent years.
In 2016, 26 percent of the scholarships and grant funds awarded by UMass Amherst went to students who didn’t need money, up from just 8 percent in 2010, according to statistics the campus has reported. The number of freshmen without need who were awarded financial aid increased from almost 370 students in 2010 to more than 1,320 students during that same period.
These more economically well-off, out-of-state students are bringing in revenue to UMass Amherst and helping to lower costs for the state’s students, said James Roche, the university’s vice provost of enrollment.
The university this school year spent $30 million on merit aid to offset tuition costs for out-of-state undergraduates. But those students also brought in $85 million through net revenue, according to UMass Amherst. “The out-of-state students are supporting the lower tuition for in-state students,” Roche said. “It makes the whole institution stronger.”
Still, for Vivian Du, a senior at Malden High School, the price of UMass Amherst after she received her financial aid package came as sticker shock. She will have to take out about $8,000 in federal and private loans annually, even after getting a private $5,000 annual scholarship, Du said.
“It’s really hard,” Du said. “It’s my top choice, and I have to pay so much money for it. It was not as affordable as I was thinking.”Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.