With the start of a new year, the University of Massachusetts welcomes another very large freshman class as well as a large number of transfer students, continuing to increase undergraduate enrollment. UMass has steadily increased in size over the past 10 to15 years, in large part because of two key reasons.
The first is the steadily growing prestige of the University. This is not the UMass of the 1980s: everything from faculty research to dining services is now award-winning, making the University more attractive to prospective students. It creates a positive cycle, as by attracting higher-achieving students, the University is able to continue to win awards and grow in prestige, thus continuing to attract ever higher quality students and faculty.
The second reason, though, is arguably the even greater driving force, and that is the cost of attending UMass. As a publicly-funded state school, UMass is cheaper to attend than almost all private schools. The dip in the economy caused by the Great Recession made students who once would have attended a costlier but more prestigious private school turn to UMass instead, thereby increasing UMass’ academic standards of entry and moving the school upward.
A disturbing trend, though, exists for students who picked UMass for financial reasons: despite UMass’ lower cost, UMass students graduate with more debt than most private college graduates do. A May 12 infographic released by the New York Times listed UMass’ in-state tuition and fees for the year of 2010 at $11,917, and the average debt for a UMass graduate that year at $25,420.
In contrast, a quick walk down the road sees the average Amherst College student paying $38,928 in tuition and fees for 2010. Yet the average student debt for a 2010 Amherst College graduate was a mere $12,843, roughly half that of a UMass graduate.
The trend is reflected across the country. A recent article on OnlineColleges.net by Anna Schumann, called “Graduates of Private Colleges Have Less Student Debt,” highlights this. And it says it all right in the title. “On average,” Schumann writes, “students who attended public universities graduated with more debt.” This begs the obvious question: why, if UMass students are paying less, are they graduating with more?
The obvious answer is likely the correct one: put bluntly, Amherst College has more money than UMass. According to the statistics provided by the College Board, 91 percent of incoming freshmen with need at Amherst College received some form of financial aid, and 100 percent of those had their needs met. At UMass, only 67 percent of freshmen with need receive aid, and only 82 percent of those have all the need met.
Furthermore, 93 percent of that aid at Amherst College came in the form of scholarships and grants, versus only 7 percent from loans, whereas at UMass, the majority of aid, 57 percent, is given in the form of loans. Amherst College students are receiving aid in a way that protects them from future debt; UMass students are not. The average first-year financial aid package at Amherst College is $38,012; at UMass, it is only $14,182.
Why is this a problem? The reason is that it undermines one of the fundamental purposes of public higher education: to make education more affordable and accessible to the community, and give lower-income students a chance at upward social mobility. Public higher education should be giving students from underprivileged backgrounds a chance at graduating with a degree that will make them competitive in the workforce; instead, the large amounts of student debt do nothing but contribute to the poverty cycle.
Gov. Deval Patrick and others in the state government and public education system have talked about trying to increase public funding for UMass, in order to make it more competitive. The growing prestige of the University has, if anything, served as an obstacle to this, as opponents question the need for more funding for UMass when the University continues to grow in prestige anyway. This misses the obvious point that the University could grow at an even greater rate without the constraints of a tightening budget.
One potential solution that doesn’t directly increase UMass’ funding from the state is for the state to encourage scholarships or tuition breaks for high-achieving students who attend UMass. For example, the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship waives the tuition of in-state students who score highly on the MCAS test in high school, the state’s standards-based assessment program of primary and secondary school students. This encourages strong students to stay in-state and attend UMass; similar programs would be beneficial as they make the school more affordable without the risk of student debt.
Regardless, the issue of student debt is a critical one for UMass students. If the University wants to continue to move forward, it is an issue it must tackle in order to best serve its student body and become a leader in higher education.
Billy Rainsford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.