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Opinion | Martin T. Meehan

A tuition freeze would hurt a thriving UMass

Maureen Gichura, who graduated with a degree in Public Health, celebrates during the UMass Commencement Ceremony at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst.
Maureen Gichura, who graduated with a degree in Public Health, celebrates during the UMass Commencement Ceremony at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

The largest class in University of Massachusetts history graduated this commencement season. Some 18,000 turned their tassels. Nearly 12,000 will make their careers in this state.

The majority earned degrees in the state’s highest-demand fields, such as health care, education, and management. That annual infusion of workforce talent is just one way that UMass serves and shapes the Commonwealth. The university also generates more than $6 billion in annual economic impact according to the Donahue Institute, and its $650 million research enterprise — the fourth-largest in New England behind Harvard, MIT, and Yale — produces life-changing discoveries and startup companies. More than $370 million of that research is funded by federal grants UMass attracts to Massachusetts.

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UMass Amherst is now a top-30 public research university, with more than 40,000 applications annually. UMass Boston, the only majority-minority university in New England, is at the forefront of climate resiliency efforts in our capital city. UMass Dartmouth is leading the South Coast’s efforts to create a sustainable ocean resources corridor. UMass Lowell is helping transform the Merrimack Valley’s textile industry through high-tech fabrics. The UMass Medical School is tops in New England for primary care education.

Overall, UMass is now one of only three public university systems in the country to have all of its undergraduate campuses ranked among the top 200 national universities by U.S. News & World Report. The university has achieved all that with only modest annual tuition increases, even while experiencing a double-digit decline in per student state funding since 2008, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

But now the Legislature is considering Senate budget language that would freeze tuition without funding the university’s full budget request. That would effectively upend UMass governance and the fiduciary role of the board of trustees. More than 30 former trustees, appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, have spoken out against it, instead supporting the versions of the budget proposed by Governor Baker and the House.

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When necessary, the university implements modest tuition increases to maintain the quality of academic programming and student services. Over the last five years, the average annual increase has been 2.8 percent, which is below the rate of inflation in higher education. Twenty percent of new tuition revenue funds aid for needy students, and UMass meets nearly 90 percent of all demonstrated financial need for in-state undergraduates. Last year, the university increased financial aid by more than $20 million. Instead of keeping UMass accessible and affordable, the proposed tuition freeze may have the opposite effect, by reducing the university’s ability to direct new funds to financial aid while forcing cuts to programs and services.

Thousands of Massachusetts residents, many with PhDs or other graduate degrees, go to work on a UMass campus each day. These researchers, professors, administrators, and support staff are not overpaid; independent analyses by professional associations and consultants such as the College and University Professional Association, Sibson Consulting, the Survey Group, and Mercer consistently find that they earn salaries in line with their peers. They have made UMass a world-class university.

Likewise, UMass students — who are more diverse, more likely to be lower income, more likely to have had obstacles to graduation, and much more likely to be Massachusetts residents than their private school peers — will do more for the state than any other cohort graduating this spring.

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The 75,000 students and more than 20,000 employees at UMass — spanning five campuses, but comprising one community in service to the Commonwealth — are doing extraordinarily well. I am proud to advocate for this incredible community of students, scholars, and professionals, and I urge the budget conference committee to maintain the governance structure and tuition-setting discretion that has worked so well for UMass and for the state.


Martin T. Meehan is president of the University of Massachusetts.