In June, University of Massachusetts trustees approved a 5 percent tuition and mandatory curriculum fee increase. The vote, which followed a two-year tuition and fee freeze, was cast before Martin T. Meehan officially took over as UMass president — and before state lawmakers finalized a $531 million budget for the UMass system.
Now Governor Charlie Baker and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg want Meehan to roll back the tuition and fee hike. As the Globe reported, Baker discouraged the increase, and Education Secretary James Peyser, a member of the UMass board, voted against it. Rosenberg argues that it was approved as a “worst-case scenario.” Since the UMass budget was increased more than anticipated, the savings should now be passed onto students, he said.
The cost of higher education is a serious concern. So, too, is crushing student debt. Taking a stand against a tuition hike is also popular, just like being against a tax increase. But Meehan was hired to put UMass on an upward trajectory to system-wide academic excellence. That takes public investment. And when it comes to determining affordability, state funding is the most significant variable. When there’s less of it, tuition goes up.
While state leaders did increase the budget about $20 million — from $511 million to $531 million — they did not give UMass the $578 million appropriation it sought.
To put the $20 million increase in further context: UMass is in the second year of a three-year contract with its 6,500 unionized employees (faculty and staff). The Year Two cost of the increase called for under the contract is $20 million. So, according to Meehan, every penny of the budget increase is currently spoken for by just one item — those contractual obligations negotiated in good faith by the state.
The 5 percent tuition and fee increase adds about $913 to the cost of attending the flagship campus in Amherst. It’s more than UMass officials would like, acknowledged Meehan. Yet, as he also points out, that averages out to a $304 increase per year over the past three years when the two previous freezes are factored in. On the overall issue of affordability, Meehan said the average “sticker price” — covering tuition, fees, room and board — across the UMass system is $25,575; the average net cost, which is the sticker price defrayed by grants, not loans, is $17,209.
Meanwhile, at the same time that it’s trying to keep student cost at a reasonable level, UMass is working to improve its standing in public college rankings. This is not the time for grandstanding over an increase that has already been factored into tuition bills. It’s the time for state leaders to sit down with the new president of UMass.
Together, they should come up with a sustainable financial model for a public university system that needs robust public support to meet its ambitious goals.