Politics

Evan Horowitz | Quick study

Who should pay for higher education at UMass and beyond?

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to support an increase in tuition and fees, bringing an end to the state’s brief attempt at a more balanced approach to higher education funding.

In 2013, UMass leaders made an offer to state legislators: If you pick up half the cost of running our campuses, we’ll freeze tuition. And for two years, the approach worked. But the Legislature’s proposals for next year are — so far — less than university leaders say they would need to continue the freeze.

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All over the country, you see the same pattern. State support for public education is going down, and the shortfall is being made via rising tuition — which also means mounting student debt.

The big question for Massachusetts and so many other states is: Who should pay for higher education? Is college like elementary school, so vital to our communities that it merits support from all taxpayers? Or should students pick up more of the tab, since they get so many of the benefits?

How does the state fund higher education?

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Not as generously as it used to.

Funding for public higher education has fallen roughly 17 percent since the recession, when you consider how much is spent per student. That’s more or less in line with other states, according to a breakdown by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Over that same period, tuition at Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities increased 22 percent — again, not far below the national average.

Is rising tuition a problem?

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Put these trends together — falling state support and rising tuition — and what you find is that the cost of higher education is being shifted onto the shoulders of students.

Is this a bad thing? Here are two ways of looking at it.

Yes, rising tuition is a problem.

As tuition has grown, so has student debt. Total student debt in the United States now measures in the trillions, having tripled in the past 10 years.

Fully three-quarters of students at Massachusetts’ public four-year institutions rely on loans, according to an analysis released by the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.

Paying back these loans siphons off money young people could otherwise use for buying a house, starting a business, or simply making purchases that pump dollars into the local economy.

Even looking beyond the loan problem, there’s another reason to think taxpayers should foot more of the bill for higher education: The whole state benefits. Having a population rich with college grads tends to bring lower crime rates and higher wages (including for non-graduates).

No, rising tuition is not a problem.

College isn’t actually costly. It’s lucrative — much more lucrative than it used to be. And while today’s college students carry more debt than their parents, they are poised to reap much greater benefits.

An analysis from the Brookings Institution found that while college grads in 2010 had about $18,000 more student debt than grads from 1992, they also earned hundreds of thousands of dollars more over the course of their lifetimes.

Here in Massachusetts, college grads earn nearly twice as much as those with just a high school degree. So asking taxpayers to cover the cost of higher education is like asking them to subsidize people already poised to succeed.

What’s missing from this story?

One group undoubtedly being squeezed by rising tuition is college dropouts. They get the worst of both worlds: higher debt, without the higher lifetime earnings.

Also, the increasing reliance on debt places a particular burden on low-income and minority students, who end up borrowing more.

How else could we fund higher education?

That depends on where you stand in this argument.

If you want to rein in tuition, the most straightforward solution is to raise taxes. A Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, has one such proposal, which would turn a tax on stock trades into money for colleges.

But even if you believe college students should pay more of the cost — because of the long-term gains that graduates accrue — there may still be a better way.

Consider the approach called “pay it forward,” which is being discussed by legislators in Oregon. It eliminates tuition but then asks graduates to start paying back, once they get jobs.

What distinguishes “pay it forward” from a traditional loan program is that students don’t owe a fixed amount; they owe a percentage of their salary. So graduates who go to Wall Street end up paying more (because they earn more) while those who follow less-remunerative paths pay an amount they can afford.

Moving to a “pay it forward” model would bring big, upfront costs because it takes years before the first cohorts graduate, get jobs, and start paying back.

But if the state is relinquishing its role as the lead funder of higher education, and if students are being asked to pick up the slack, we should think about the best, fairest way to make that transition.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz
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