UMass students lobby State House for higher education funding

By Hannah McGoldrick

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(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, a group of students from the University of Massachusetts and the surrounding community colleges traveled to the Mass. State House in Beacon Hill, Boston to lobby legislators for increased funding for public higher education.

Of the students who attended the Lobby Day, 50 students were from UMass, one student was from Holyoke Community College and six students were from Springfield Technical Community College. The students in attendance lobbied legislators from their regional districts for funding for public higher education, support of MASSGrant and other need-based financial aid awards, as well as funding for the Commonwealth Honors College.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s fiscal year 2011 (FY 2011) budget currently includes $969.7 million for public colleges and universities. This allocation was based on the necessity of protecting public colleges and universities from budget cuts since the fiscal year 2009. The allocation includes $873 million in General Fund dollars and $96 million in State Fiscal Stabilization Funds through the federal recovery act.

 “I think [the Lobby Day] went really well,” said Sam Dreyfus, a Student Government Association (SGA) member. “It’s a really tough budget year, and no one is going to be able to get what they want.”

“The legislators were really impressed at our level of knowledge and participation,” said Dreyfus, “showing that we are a presence that needs to be paid attention to.”

Gov. Patrick’s FY 2011 budget proposal also suggests maintaining current funding for scholarships provided by the Office of Student Financial Assistance (OSFA). This allocation totals $87.8 million. This also includes assistance of $3.5 million from the University of Massachusetts to increase need-based financial aid for in-state students.

Funding is projected to increase particularly in the MASSGrant program. According to the OFSA Web site, MASSGrant is “a grant assistance program funded by appropriations from the Massachusetts Legislature.” The program provides need-based financial aid to undergraduates who are residents of Massachusetts, seeking a degree from any public college or university in Massachusetts.

Currently, Massachusetts spends $134.69 per person aged 18‐24 in financial aid grants, placing 35th in the country, with the national average at $269.32. Between the 1988-89 to 2007-08 academic years, funding for the MASSGrant program declined by 53 percent. 

 “It is important to remind legislators that as students and voting members of this state,” said SGA Speaker of the Senate Modesto Montero, “we feel strongly about supporting public higher education and want it to be an issue that is a priority during the upcoming months.”

Students were given the opportunity to hear various State House representatives speak at a press conference during the Lobby Day. Commissioner Richard M. Freeland, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, spoke before the students. Freeland spoke of the power students have as voters.

“We have to look at everything realistically,” Freeland said. “Know that public higher education matters [and] you as students have the attention of the legislators.”

Representative Ellen Story (D) of the Third Hampshire District, said she believes the future of the state lies in higher education.

“Public education is the foundation of democracy,” Rep. Story said.

“I think it was an excellent day of lobbying, and the overall feedback from legislators was very positive,” Montero said. “They were impressed by how well-organized the event was, and the fact that so many students came out – a constituency that is inconsistently heard from.”

State Senator Ben Downing (D) representing Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin counties, spoke to the group of students about his own experience with paying-off college loans. With the average tuition and fees at Massachusetts public 4‐year institutions being $7,922, 33 percent higher than the national average of $5,950, Downing supports MASSGrant and other forms of need-based financial aid. 

 “Public higher education is a social good and it’s important,” Sen. Downing said. “[It] is a smart investment and [it] is about jobs.” 

SGA Senator Melissa Urban felt the Lobby Day was effective. “We will see what the numbers look like when the House budget comes out next Wednesday,” she said. “We hope that by having a presence through our letters and by being on Beacon Hill, the House will think of us in their budget.” 

Both the house and senate will be coming out within the next few days to debate the proposal and will finalize the FY 2011 budget next Wednesday.

Hannah McGoldrick can be reached at [email protected]