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January 3, 2018

Students turn attention to state legislators as decision on UMass budget looms

UMass President Robert Caret Collegian File Photo

Students hope UMass President Robert Caret will endorse a letter being sent to state legislators regarding next year’s UMass budget.
(Collegian File Photo)

Students from the University of Massachusetts are turning their lobbying efforts toward Massachusetts state legislators as they continue a campaign aimed at lessening the impact of rising student fees.

The UMass Student Administration Accountability Coalition is currently in the process of drafting and circulating a letter that will be distributed to major stakeholders within the University system in an effort to gather support from major players within the state. As a tuition hike and mandatory student fee increase is imminent, students plan to lobby state legislators to allocate more funds to the UMass budget.

“Our hope at this point is to try and change the mindset of the Board of Trustees so they can push state legislature a little bit harder to get as much money out of the state as possible,” Charlotte Kelly said.

The finance subcommittee of the board recommended UMass raise tuition and fees by as much as eight percent for in-state undergraduate students Wednesday, due to limited state funding.

UMass initially requested a $578 million budget from the state for the upcoming fiscal year. But the Massachusetts Senate authorized a $538 million budget for the system, while the House of Representatives authorized a $519 million budget, creating a significant gap. State legislators will now negotiate a budget that will land somewhere between $519 million and $538 million.

According to Kelly, the letter is specifically addressed to the conference committee of the Massachusetts legislature, which will negotiate between the two budgets.

Members of the SAAC say the letter will urge the state to select the Senate’s proposed budget, creating the least amount of fee increases for students next season. They hope that significant support – the letter is being distributed to President Robert Caret, all five chancellors within the system, as well as members of the board and various faculty members in the hopes they sign it – will persuade the state to allocate as much money as possible.

“There’s basically, at this point, no hope for no increase of fees,” Kelly said. “But we can work as hard as we damn well can to make sure we get the lowest possible increase.”

The Board of Trustees will officially vote on the recommendations June 17. A new fiscal year for the state begins July 1.

‘We have a long road ahead’

The SAAC came together to protest a proposed $250 Information Technology student fee, which was also approved the board subcommittee. Kelly and UMass student Jeremy Tibbetts are two members of the coalition, and were invited to speak at last Wednesday’s meeting on behalf of students, something that Kelly believed was “uncommon.”

The pair had three minutes to speak and outline reasons why that specific fee, as well as an increase in overall student fees, is detrimental to many attending UMass. The board ultimately approved the fee, and both Tibbetts and Kelly said it was unclear whether the board was receptive to their pitch.

“It was both frustrating and really powerful,” said Tibbetts, who said the opportunity to speak showed that student voice has power, but later said he felt like his message “fell on deaf ears.”

“Obviously, that the fee passed is horrible, it’s absolutely devastating,” Kelly said. “But I think there’s some real momentum.”

Kelly and Tibbetts, along with recent UMass graduate Zac Bears, who also attended, left the meeting and met with Massachusetts senator Pat Jehlen, where the idea of the letter spawned. Kelly said she believes momentum is building as conversation turns away from the board and toward state legislature.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, only six states have cut higher education funding more than Massachusetts since 2001, as UMass has cut funding by 25 percent in that time frame. But tuition and fees have frozen over the past two years as Massachusetts increased funding, Caret wrote in a piece for the Boston Globe.

Yet Caret also wrote that state funding per student in Massachusetts is $9,025, which is lower than direct competitors North Carolina and Maryland, which he says is not a good position for the state.

According to Bears, this is where the issue lies as students may have to pay more next year.

“The real situation is less that the Board of Trustees is putting in all these fees and taking money,” he said. “It’s really more the state isn’t providing its fair share to students and families.”

Kelly says it’s become clear that the issue is rooted deeper than just one fee.

“People thought that once this was fee was decided that we were going to stop,” she said. “I think it’s very clear we have a long road ahead before we call this quits or we’re done entirely.”

Kelly said the coalition has also discussed proposing some type of student fee cap to the board to keep student cost down.

“The fees, they hurt so much,” she said.

“And it’s devastating and heartbreaking to me that the board continues to put these costs on students. But at this point, we have to fight like hell in order to try and stop this in some capacity.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the SAAC formed to oppose the IT fee. It has been corrected for accuracy. 

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