Lawrence O’Brien: Public education needs public support

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A recent letter-writer to the Gazette (“UMass building boom – what’s in your wallet?” July 14) chided University of Massachusetts Amherst officials for “under-charging its current students” and “inappropriately” placing the cost of a university education on Massachusetts taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, the writer calls for “significantly” increasing tuition and fees for all students, so that they and their families pay “the appropriate cost” of their college education.

Sadly, this writer’s philosophy resembles the approach our and most other states have taken toward higher education funding for the last 35 years. Since the early 1980s, state governments have dramatically reduced taxpayer support of public four- and two-year universities and colleges, shifting the expense on to the generally flat incomes of working- and middle-class families and individuals who either send their children to those institutions or attend themselves to further their education.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, state spending on higher education in Massachusetts dropped by 25 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2014, which were, in turn, made up by commensurate increases in student tuition and fee payments.

The center also notes that our state is 48th in the nation “in state spending on higher education as a percent of personal income.”

In addition to the fact that shifting the financing of an education at UMass and other public colleges and universities from general tax revenue to students and their families essentially privatizes public higher education, this diminishing support only serves to exacerbate shameful income disparities in our state.

Latest reports place Massachusetts at sixth in the nation for income inequality.

Making public higher education more expensive decreases opportunities for too many people to attain a degree critical to earning a dignified income in the 21st century, effectively reducing social mobility.

It is a desire to reverse these disturbing trends of under-investment in public goods and growing income inequality in our commonwealth that motivates my campaign for state representative in the 3rd Hampshire District. Let’s “mind the gap” and appropriately invest in the common good.

Lawrence O’Brien