Funding increase freezes UMass tuition and fees

By Aviva Luttrell

Tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts will remain flat this academic year following a push by higher education officials to ease the financial burden on students.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law the fiscal year 2014 state budget, which will provide $479 million in funding for the UMass five-campus system, a $39 million increase from last year.

“We have one of the greatest increases in state appropriation for higher education of any state in the country right now,” said Katy Abel, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. “Campuses have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she said. According to Abel, the freeze will be in effect at all of the state’s 29 public colleges and universities.

The freeze in tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduate students is part of a plan proposed last year by UMass President Robert Caret to have the state share an equal cost burden with students. Currently, students pay 57 percent of the cost of attending UMass, while the state covers 43 percent. Five years ago, these figures were reversed. The total budget of the five-campus UMass system is $1.3 billion, according to a UMass press release.

“I think the Governor and the legislature have been aware of the fact that the University’s [state] funding has been flat for a number of years,” said spokesperson for the UMass president’s office Robert Connolly, and pointed to the 2008 recession as a contributing factor. “I think that when President Caret pointed to the imbalance in terms of the funding of academic programs… I think that had an effect, and also I think we also now see a moment when finances are improving for virtually all the states across the country, Massachusetts included.”

Supporters of the move say the investment in higher education will pay itself back in the form of students who are prepared for the 21st century workforce.

“There has been a growing recognition of the fact that Massachusetts has a knowledge-based economy,” Abel said. “We have the greatest need of any state for a high-skilled workforce.”

According to Abel, 70 percent of all jobs in Massachusetts are going to require at least some post-secondary education by 2018. “This is a down-payment on our future,” she said. “There has to be a mutual understanding that the investment has to occur over time.”

Abel also pointed to the rising cost of higher education as a factor in the state’s decision to increase appropriations. An increasing number of students are opting for more affordable public universities over costly private schools. According to Abel, in 1967, 30 percent of all undergrads in Massachusetts attended a public college or university. Today, that number has risen to 52 percent.

UMass officials have high hopes that the state’s financial commitment to public higher education will continue next year. According to Connolly, the budget contains specific language calling for another significant appropriation of funds a year from now.

“While that’s not binding, it’s certainly notable to see this expression of intent built right into the current state budget,” he said. “The state is really evidencing a new commitment to UMass and to the rest of public education.”

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]