BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service) – Despite seven years of economic growth, the Beacon Hill budget climate in 2017 has so far not translated into major increases in funding for public higher education, leaving students and families struggling to pay for college vulnerable to another round of tuition and fee increases this fall.
College students filled the State House Wednesday, pressing for increases in state funds, which supplement tuition and fees and campus revenues to finance the state’s public higher education network comprising the University of Massachusetts, state universities and community colleges.
“We can’t leave it to university presidents and college administrators,” Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, told the students as they prepared to lobby lawmakers. “They’re hamstrung. They either get to choose what programs do we cut or how much do we raise tuition and fees.”
Bears said the advocacy day’s goal was to “get our legislators to give our administrators more tools, so that they’re not forced between making two bad choices every year.”
Public higher education students were hit with tuition and fee hikes last year, including a 5.8 percent tuition increase at UMass.
Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed small increases for the public higher education system in his fiscal 2018 budget, which attempts to rein in costs in the budget-busting MassHealth program which is threatening to consume new state revenues.
UMass President Marty Meehan, in his budget request to the Baker administration, asked for an increase of $30 million or 5.9 percent over this year’s funding, for a total state appropriation of $538.6 million. Baker’s budget proposes a $3.5 million increase.
Meehan wrote that if the state is unable to support the $30 million increase and an additional $16.6 million for the state’s share of collective bargaining agreement costs, “the University will be in the unfortunate circumstance of having to raise tuition and implement over $30 million in cuts that would likely impact the core education and teaching mission of all five UMass campuses.” The cuts could result in extending a hiring freeze, increasing student-to-faculty ratio, changing program offerings and reducing transportation services, he said.
Baker recommended a $2.2 million increase in the $250.5 million allocated for state universities and a $4.2 million increase in the $274 million appropriated for community colleges.
The state Department of Higher Education requested $264.9 million for the state universities and $289.9 million for community colleges, both 5.5 percent increases.
Rep. John Scibak and Sen. Michael Moore, the chairs of the Joint Committee on Education said they hoped lawmakers will be able to boost Baker’s numbers.
“We’re still trying to recover from the 2008 recession and the budget numbers in many line items still aren’t anywhere near where we were pre-2008,” said Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat whose district includes portion of the UMass Amherst campus.
“The reality is that unless we’re able to structure things in such a way that students get financial aid and are able to go, we may have slots that are available to students and have students not there filling them for financial reasons,” Scibak said.
Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said the state needs to find “a dedicated revenue source” to fund education, pointing toward a proposed surtax on income over $1 million as one potential avenue.
“We’ve got to make sure that students have access to public higher education, not necessarily saying it’s free, but it’s got to be something that they can afford and not be crippling for the rest of their life.” he said.
New revenue to fund education and other programs in next year’s budget will be likely limited after officials have ruled out new taxes. Baker opposes broad-based tax hikes, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said the House budget will not contain increases to the sales or income taxes.
A 2018 ballot question would ask voters to approve constitutional amendment setting a 4 percent surtax on annual household incomes over $1 million, intended to generate new funds for education and transportation.
UMass Boston lecturer Joseph Ramsey urged advocacy day participants to support the surtax.
“We have tremendous wealth in this commonwealth, this commonwealth,” he said. “We have more millionaires and billionaires than ever, and yet we are told that there is not money for something as basic as public education, public higher education in particular. … We must make some of this common wealth available to all, available to public higher education.”
Copyright 2017 State House News Service