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Editorial

Beacon Hill is going in the wrong direction on higher-ed funding

Protesters briefly chanted as Governor Charlie Baker spoke during UMass Amherst’s commencement last week.
Protesters briefly chanted as Governor Charlie Baker spoke during UMass Amherst’s commencement last week.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Yes, UMass students need relief from rising tuition. But the way the state Senate has proposed to freeze costs for the five-campus system misses the mark, and could wind up doing more harm than good.

Lawmakers’ concerns are certainly well-founded: Total cost for in-state undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst hit $28,513 this year, including tuition, fees, and room and board. Higher costs translates into more debt, which has become a crippling financial burden for young graduates and a drag on the economy.

Rising costs at US public universities stem from decades of state-level budget cuts. That’s true in Massachusetts too, where per-student spending on higher education is down by about 30 percent compared with 2001, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

The way to stop tuition increases is to reverse the years of disinvestment in public higher education. The UMass system estimated that in order to avoid tuition increases next year, it would need $568 million in state funding.

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Instead, the House, Senate, and Governor Baker proposed an identical, lower amount: $558 million.

But the Senate Ways and Means Committee went a step further than either Baker or the House: It forbids UMass from raising in-state tuition and mandatory fees to close the gap itself.

If the Senate wants to avoid tuition cuts, it could just fund the full $568 million. Without adequate state funding or the ability to raise tuition, UMass will have only one option left to balance its books: cuts.

Now, if you believe that UMass is a haven of administrative flab and wasteful spending, then maybe the Senate’s approach is just the tough medicine needed to scare it into fiscal discipline. But the system has been in budget-cutting mode for years, and campus chancellors say they’d be forced to shrink still further if the Senate’s approach prevails. The University of Massaschusetts Boston, which has endured years of financial turmoil, including significant cuts, says it will have to cut about 100 administrative or faculty positions, eliminate about 1,000 class sections, or some combination thereof.

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The potential harm to UMass from the Senate plan goes beyond potential cuts. The UMass board sets tuition rates, and the Legislature has never taken the authority out of its hands — even for a year. UMass fears that the system’s bond rating will suffer if lawmakers set the precedent that they can interfere in tuition-setting.

Another worrisome development: State Senator Nick Collins has proposed an amendment that would forbid UMass Boston from reducing spending on centers and institutes housed at its Dorchester campus, which range from the Institute of Asian American Studies to the Urban Harbors Institute.

Those centers do important work that’s valued in the community, but they are not central to the student experience, and UMass is trying to wean them off university funding so it can focus those dollars on core needs. At private universities, institutes typically fund themselves with outside grants instead of relying on tuition dollars, and that’s the model UMass wants to implement.

Alternatively, if the state Legislature considers the institutes important, it could be the grant-giver itself and appropriate money to fund them. Indeed, if the Collins proposal came with extra funds attached to it, he’d get no argument from us. But it doesn’t: It just orders the university to keep supporting the institutes at current funding levels, which UMass Boston says will require shifting about $2.3 million away from its core needs, even as the Senate budget prohibits them from raising tuition. The university estimates that the provision would lead to the elimination of 460 class sections, dozens of layoffs, or a combination of both. (And that would be on top of cuts that would have to take place if the Senate tuition freeze condition remains in the budget.)

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Decades ago, when the state provided more of UMass’s budget, legislators might have had more standing to decree how UMass raised and spent money. If lawmakers want to freeze tuition and keep the UMass Boston research centers alive, then great — they just need to start writing the checks.

Failing that, Beacon Hill ought to let the university make the tough decisions needed to thrive.