Editorial: State retreats from tuition plan

Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2015

A college education can be expensive, no matter how you slice it. In Massachusetts, that cost just got higher at the state’s flagship public university and others in the system as the University of Massachusetts board of trustees voted to increase tuition by 5 percent and tack on a new technology fee earlier this week.

The numbers play out this way for undergraduate students on the Amherst campus who are likely facing a bill of $25,674 — an increase of $1,459 — for tuition, fees and room and board for the 2015-2016 academic year.

This increase marks the end of a tuition freeze for the last two years. More important, it signals a retreat from a plan devised by the university, the administration of former Gov. Deval Patrick and the state Legislature to find a true balance between the state and students in paying for college — with an eye toward the problem of college debt that saddles too many students and their families.

Known as the “50-50 plan,” the even split was achieved by increasing the state’s investment in UMass while in return the school held the line on tuition and fees while continuing to find efficiencies in operations and the delivery of education. In some corners of the state, the plan was seen as landmark legislation in its acknowledgment that more needed to be done in slowing the cost for attending college, to make it accessible to more students and for underscoring that the state’s investment in the university system had not been nearly as robust as it should have been.

As UMass President Robert L. Caret said in 2013, “We believe that a 50-50 ­approach to funding our core educational budget is the best path for our students, their families, and for the commonwealth. It is a fair and equitable approach and is the key to providing our citizens with a higher education option that melds quality with affordability.”

With the state pumping in an additional $100 million into the UMass system, the schools were able to freeze tuition while reducing the students’ share of their educational costs. Knowing the difference that a quality college education at an affordable price makes in the quality of one’s life, along with helping drive economic growth — college grads in Massachusetts earn almost twice as much as those without a degree — why then have the two chambers of the Legislature, along with Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, all offered budgets considerably less than the $578.3 million the university requested?

All fingers are being pointed to the projected $1.8 billion shortfall inherited from the Patrick administration as the culprit.

“We could have cut money for roads and bridges; we could have cut money for K-through-12 education — there are a certain number of choices you have,” state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, said. Story also said that her fellow lawmakers shared some of the blame. “We have not appropriated enough money.”

It’s a fact that Massachusetts is among the 47 states that are spending less per student now than they did before the Great Recession. This means that even with the increase the state saw in higher education funding last year, Massachusetts is still below what it spent seven years ago. The Legislature needs to remember all of this as it continues its budget deliberations. Otherwise, the advances toward the 50-50 plan will quickly vanish.


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