It’s still July, but for University of Massachusetts students, the fall semester already is off to an unpleasant start. For the second consecutive year, the cost of a UMass education is going up significantly. The board of trustees last Thursday approved a tuition increase that averages 5.8 percent for in-state students at the system’s four undergraduate campuses, or about $756. That’s on top of last year’s hike of about 7 percent, and brings the average tuition to almost $14,000. Add in room, board, books, and other expenses at the system’s flagship Amherst campus and it totals about $28,000 . (That compares with a national average cost of $19,548 at a four-year state school last year, according to The College Board.)
For many UMass students, the bill soon to arrive in the mail will add to a pile of debt that might make them wonder whether a diploma is worth long-lasting financial pain. The UMass system is expanding at an impressive rate, and its academic reputation is on the rise — US News & World Report ranks UMass Amherst 29 out of more than 600 public schools. But students can’t continue to bear the brunt of rising costs that have accompanied the ascent. If UMass is to keep improving and growing, it’s going to mean that the state has to pony up more money.
The trustees’ vote came not long after they found UMass will receive $508 million in state funding, about a 1 percent increase, depending on how it’s calculated. That barely keeps pace with inflation, and it’s not nearly enough to close a potential $85 million budget gap. Robert Connolly, a school spokesman, says cost-cutting measures, including layoffs and hiring freezes, will erase the rest of the deficit.
UMass President Marty Meehan says the public funding question comes down to this: “Does the state want a world-class university system? I think the answer is yes.” History suggests he’s being overly optimistic. Traditionally, the thinking on Beacon Hill has been that because Massachusetts is dotted with so many private colleges, it could get away with an average public university system — indeed, a report released earlier this year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association showed Massachusetts is somewhere in the middle when it comes to supporting public colleges and universities. But the price of private schools has escalated beyond the reach of most families, and there’s a real danger that UMass is on the verge of becoming unaffordable — especially for middle-class families whose financial aid packages consist mostly of loans.
Circling above all of this like a gathering storm is a looming talent crisis. The UMass system, along with nine other state-run universities and 15 community colleges, now educates more than half of all Massachusetts undergrads, according to the Department of Higher Education. The agency has projected that by 2025, those schools will “fall short of producing their share of the state’s much-needed new college degrees by a minimum of 55,000 to 65,000.” If Massachusetts companies can’t find qualified employees to fill increasingly technical jobs, the economy will suffer. Remember that old adage about communities with good school systems being more desirable? It also applies to states.