Tuition and fee freezes end for UMass students after budget talks take center stage over summer

By Anthony Rentsch

Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian
(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

University of Massachusetts students paying their bills for the fall semester had a lot to talk about over the summer break.

Mainly, tuition and fees rose for UMass students for the first time in three years.

The summer of 2015 began with the proposal of a $250 Information Technology fee intended to support a growing campus network. Many found the current state of the campus network to be problematic last year, as more than 3,000 students filed complaints about it in the fall 2014 semester alone.

The IT fee was opposed by many students, but was ultimately approved to begin this fall by the Board of Trustees, in addition to a handful of other mandatory student fees for athletics, health services and student activities.

The board also passed a motion to increase tuition for UMass students. State legislators and Governor Charlie Baker then sparred over how much money to allocate to UMass and, subsequently, the size of tuition and fee hikes. The legislature eventually won out, allocating nearly $532 million to the five-campus university system.

For in-state undergraduates on the Amherst campus, the total cost of tuition and mandatory fees rose from $13,258 last year to $14,171 this year, a 6.9 percent increase.

Yet, there is still a chance that student costs for the academic year won’t go up at all, as the state legislature is expected to act on a supplemental budget bill this month. In a statement in August, UMass asked Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Baker to back additional funding, in the hopes of being able to offer a rebate to students.

Tuition and fees

The Information Technology fee became a hot topic at the end of May and beginning of June as UMass students petitioned the Board of Trustees not to approve the fee. Over 1,400 students signed a formal petition through, and many more took part in a lobbying effort called the “UMass IT Fee Challenge” that encouraged students to call individual trustees. This all took place in the two weeks leading up to a board subcommittee meeting on June 10 with the IT fee on the agenda.

The proposal for the fee initially emerged in the winter and early spring as a way to help support campus network modernization efforts.

A $252 residential technology fee already existed to pay for some dated types of infrastructure and pay off the school’s infrastructure debt. That fee is only paid by undergraduate students who live on campus.

The new fee, to be paid by all undergraduate students, aims to update and upgrade a campus network tasked with handling, on average, three devices per student, according to the UMass IT help page.

“(The fee) provides students additional access and speed,” UMass spokesperson Edward Blaguszewski told The Daily Collegian in June. “Security is also really important here. Any IT administrator at any university will tell you that university networks, as well as any place else, are really under relentless cyber attacks. You really need to invest in your infrastructure to keep up with that.”

In total, the campus network modernization project will cost the University $85 million. Students will contribute $5.1 million to the project via the IT fee. The rest of the funding will come from $30 million in capital funds that Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has pledged, as well as private gifts.

Many students, however, saw the fee as a burden and acted to protest it.

“Students are starting to recognize that this is coming down on their backs,” senior Charlotte Kelly said.

Despite efforts by the newly formed Student Administration Accountability Coalition and others to protest the IT fee, efforts that included Kelly and junior Jeremy Tibbetts twice speaking at Board of Trustees meetings, the fee was approved without much administrative resistance.

Graphic by Randy Crandon
(Graphic by Randy Crandon/Daily Collegian)

The state budget

Once the board approved tuitions and fee hikes, eyes turned toward the state house and the latter stages of the state budget process.

From the get-go, it looked unlikely that UMass would receive the full $578 million it initially requested back in January. In their budget proposals, the House and Senate earmarked $519 and $538 million, respectively, for UMass. The chambers reconciled their differences in early July and offered a final proposal to the governor just shy of $532 million.

Kelly said that UMass students tracked the process and lobbied legislators, trustees and UMass leaders to push for the Senate’s initial $538 million figure – the highest amount UMass could hope to receive at that point.

Within two weeks, recently elected Governor Charlie Baker, in his budget review, cut $5.25 million from the proposed UMass budget in order to bring the university system’s budget in line with the one he had initially submitted to the House in March, according to his official explanation.

Another two weeks passed and, just before finalizing the budget, legislators overrode Baker’s cuts to UMass, restoring the $5.25 million he had slashed out of the budget. The override, which required a two-thirds majority in each house, passed 139-16 in the House, and 38-0 in the Senate.

At first glance, UMass’ final budget of $531,807,373 appears to be part of a positive trend. In absolute terms, the University’s funding jumped up 2.5 percent from 2015 and has gone up by over 25 percent since 2012.

And, although tuition and fees were basically guaranteed to go up due to the $40 million gap between the legislature’s highest proposal and UMass’ request, the fact that the actual funding UMass received falls closer to the Senate’s $538 million proposal means costs didn’t rise as drastically as they could have.

Yet, many say there is an underlying trend of underfunding higher education in Massachusetts that poses a problem. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the state has cut higher education spending, in real terms, by 25 percent over the last 14 years.

Former UMass President Robert Caret wrote in a Boston Globe piece that UMass state funding per student is $9,025, a figure that is low when compared to similar states such as Maryland and North Carolina.

“We’re not funded anywhere near the level that poorer states are funding their public universities,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told the Collegian in June.

Kelly called the nearly $532 million UMass budget enough for “just scraping by.”

She added that the increased tuition and fees is part of a trend toward privatizing the University.

“Whenever I look at students being charged to attend UMass I look at that as a privatization of higher education. (Privatization) is when you start making students pay a dime for what should be public. The fact that tuition and fees are being raised shows a move towards a privatization of a public good.”

What’s next?

Now that fall semester bills have been paid, student activists are focusing their attention on securing more money for UMass through the supplemental funding process.

Supplemental budgets can be passed within a fiscal year of the passing of the General Appropriations Act, the act that puts the budget into law. The process supplemental budgets must go through is the same, although condensed, and supplemental funding is typically used to address “unforeseen growth, decline in state revenues, additional expenses or savings,” according to the state’s website.

The state legislature is expected to act on a supplemental budget bill in September.

Last month, Rosenberg and Baker urged the board of trustees to reconsider the tuition and fee increases approved earlier in the summer. UMass responded by asking them to support its supplemental funding bid.

According to State House News Service, Rosenberg pledged to “make it a priority to address the University’s continuing funding needs.”

Kelly added that whether or not UMass receives extra money would depend on how students organize this fall and how the legislature views their efforts.

After students’ efforts over the spring and summer, she is optimistic that students will be motivated to push for supplemental funding.

“The thing that was really impressive was that students were so engaged with this campaign during the time that we were away on break. I’m really impressed with the students’ ability to act and act quickly with this issue.

“Moving forward, the most empowering part of this process for me is that we have students coming from every single part of campus. These are students who are equal and who all equally deserve to have accessible, affordable and quality education.”

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.