For the last four years, the University of Massachusetts has increased in-state tuition, adding to the fiscal burden on students and their families.
This year, the state Senate is saying no — and offering a 7 percent boost to the university system’s funding, provided in-state tuition and fees don’t increase next year.
The proposed freeze, included in the Senate budget plan released last week, appears unprecedented, budget analysts say, and it has prompted warnings of deep cuts across the five-campus system.
But it also underscores the challenge of reining in the price of a college education and, for policy makers, finding the right way to do it. Judging by the immediate fallout from the Senate’s proposal, Beacon Hill may still be far from a consensus.
“I wish there was a magic bullet out there. If someone has it, I’d love to see it,” said Representative Jeffrey N. Roy, who chairs the Committee on Higher Education for the House.
That chamber, too, proposed $39 million for UMass, but without freezing tuition or fees.
“I think it creates a very stacked choice for the university, in taking away some of its flexibility,” Roy said of the Senate proposal. “They’re either going to raise student costs in terms of tuition or fees, or they’re going to have to cut services. I’m not sure if that’s in the best interest of the students.”
Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the chair of the Senate’s budget committee, defended the plan, saying the chamber is “overwhelmingly supportive” of the intent to protect the wallets of students and their families. But he said the discussion should be about both what the state is providing and about UMass “taking a close look” at how it’s spending the money.
“There has to be a balancing act here,” he said.
The Senate proposal follows years of fractious debate over the state’s role in funding higher education. Massachusetts has among the most expensive public university tuition in the country, and UMass has approved in-state tuition hikes in each of the last four years, including by 2.5 percent last year
That pushed tuition at the flagship Amherst campus to $15,406 for the current fiscal school year, and to $13,496 at UMass Dartmouth, the least expensive campus.
The university has leaned into expansion efforts of late, including spending $75 million last year to buy Mount Ida College’s campus in Newton and announcing in March its intent to launch a national online college, a venture that’s expected to cost millions.
Jeff Cournoyer, a UMass spokesman, said that borrowing money to fund long-term projects shouldn’t be equated to the school’s year-to-year operating costs. He said the system has also sought to pare costs in other ways, including by pooling resources, such as procurements and accounts payable, across the campuses.
“Our goal is no tuition increase,” Cournoyer said, adding that “because we would like to avoid more cuts does not mean we aren’t already making them and finding ways to hold down costs.”
Officials said the university would again project a 2.5 percent tuition increase this year if it didn’t receive the $568 million in funding it requested from the state.
Governor Charlie Baker, the House, and the Senate have all budgeted $558 million, a $39 million increase from this fiscal year that officials say will cover tens of millions in additional collective bargaining costs.
School officials contend that, after taking those into account, it leaves about $5.2 million. But without the additional $10.2 million it requested, they said the system would be facing $22.2 million in budget cuts if they were also barred from raising tuition or fees.
That could include $7.1 million in cuts at UMass Boston, where interim chancellor Katherine Newman said officials “would have to consider” laying off roughly 100 administrative staff members, slicing the faculty by 100 professors, cutting financial aide, or some combination of the options.
“It creates mandates without offsetting funding from the Commonwealth and would, as a result, force us to slash positions and services that are vital to our students and to the campus community,” Newman wrote in an e-mail to the college community Thursday.
How the warnings will resonate in the State House remains to be seen.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, whose budget negotiators would have to agree to the tuition-freeze provision, did not say last week whether he supports it, calling it an issue to be decided in a conference committee.
“What we did in the budget was to treat UMass fairly in terms of, again, increasing the amount that we had given last year,” he said.
Senator Karen E. Spilka said she was trying to understand the basis for UMass’ $22.2 million in estimated cuts, and plans to huddle with the university’s president, Martin T. Meehan. That meeting, according to Spilka’s office, is scheduled for this week at the State House, but it was on the books before this latest dust-up.
“We certainly will talk to them,” Spilka said. “A 7 percent increase is a hefty increase, however.”
Progressive lawmakers have already dug into other ways to corral costs, albeit by pushing for hundreds of millions more dollars for higher education than what any of the budget proposals include.
One bill, known as the CHERISH Act, would carve out $500 million in additional higher education funding while freezing tuition and fees for five years. Another would create grants to cover the full cost of tuition and fees for qualified students at state schools.
Barring a tuition hike through the budget, however, could be unprecedented, said Jeremy Thompson, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. He reviewed two decades’ worth of state spending bills and didn’t find any similar language.
“There’s no question that there needs to be something that deals with [the] increasing tuition and fees,” he said. “Whether the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s blunt approach that ‘you can’t do this’ is the right anwer depends on us knowing more about the numbers on both sides.”