As Massachusetts House and Senate leaders meet to negotiate final details of the state budget, the question of the role of lawmakers in ensuring that public higher education remains affordable is a sticking point.
While both budgets significantly increase funding for higher education, only the Senate includes a key provision: a one-year freeze on in-state tuition and fees across the UMass system. For university students and their families facing rising college costs, an effort to hold the line on tuition could not be more welcome.
Between 2000–01 and 2015–16, in-state tuition and fees at Massachusetts four-year public institutions increased 109 percent and currently ranks eighth highest in the nation.
Instead of welcoming this “fund and freeze” as a temporary breather for consumers who’ve borne a disproportionate share of the cost burden, prominent college administrators and their advocates blame state funding cuts brought on by diminished revenues when the Great Recession hit. By doing so, they eschew any responsibility for holding down institutional spending that drives budgets.
In Massachusetts, like most U.S. states, state spending has been on the uptick since 2012. According to the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers, state spending on higher education rose by 18.3% or $14 billion in the last five fiscal years.
And there’s another new pattern emerging around the country. State lawmakers are getting smarter and realize this new money should come with better protections for consumers and the public.
In Virginia where we led a campaign, state lawmakers allocated an additional $52.5 million for a tuition moderation fund which state institutions could only tap into if they agreed to a one-year freeze on in-state tuition and fees. As a result, every single public college and university in Virginia has frozen tuition for the 2019–2020 academic year.
In a similar effort, South Carolina lawmakers also increased funding for higher education this year, appropriating an extra $36 million for state institutions that limit tuition increases to 1 percent or less this coming year. Lawmakers in Minnesota — home to the nation’s only split legislature — tied new funding to a 3% cap in tuition.
And other states, such as neighboring Vermont and New Hampshire, are still considering “fund and freeze” proposals that tie new state higher education investment to varying levels of tuition restraint. The Massachusetts General Court should press on and deliver a win for everybody: for the students and families who desperately need a break from rising tuition and for the institutions who correctly assert that reduced funding over time has complicated the affordability picture.
Massachusetts senator Michael Rodrigues, chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, hit the nail on the head in a recent statement to the Boston Globe, saying, “There has to be a balancing act here.”
And a balancing act is precisely what Massachusetts senators have proposed this year by allocating an additional $63 million for public colleges and universities, hardly a pittance, and requiring a one-year tuition freeze at the University of Massachusetts.
UMass stands to gain most from the Senate budget — an additional $39 million, up seven percent from the previous fiscal year.
Far from a sense of shared responsibility for the problems of college costs and its solutions, UMass opposition to price constraints signals an unquenchable thirst for more revenue, consumers be damned.
In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, UMass president Marty Meehan criticized the Senate budget for not providing enough cash, saying a legislative tuition freeze would “upend UMass governance” and the autonomy of its board, the body which typically sets rates.
Not everyone agrees.
Gaining seven percent more state funding, which is more than three times the rise in the consumer price index in Boston last year, and still preferring to hike tuition is nothing more than an attempt by UMass to have its cake and eat it too.
But senators on Beacon Hill are right to say that ‘enough is enough.’
As America faces a $1.6 trillion student debt problem and more than $32,000 for each public baccalaureate graduate in the Commonwealth, lawmakers deserve credit for taking action and standing up for the students and families they represent.
To tackle college affordability, Massachusetts should develop a comprehensive agenda that includes permanent funding and pricing reforms and increased accountability and transparency on institutional spending with required public comment periods and affordability training for trustees.
But a one-year tuition freeze and boost in state funding is a good first step.