UMass Board of Trustees set to vote on potential tuition increase Wednesday

A demonstration in protest will take place Wednesday afternoon

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Nina Walat / Daily Collegian

By Leigh Appelstein and Irina Costache

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees is set to vote on a slight tuition increase for out-of-state students for the 2021-2022 academic year at its meeting Wednesday morning. The meeting will take place via Zoom at 10 a.m. on April 14, with a full agenda and Zoom link accessible on their website. Students and staff are also planning a protest for later that afternoon.

Last month, UMass President Marty Meehan recommended that the Board freeze tuition and fees at all of the UMass campuses. However, out-of-state students would be excluded from this, and residential fees are posed to increase as well.

According to Student Government Association members who sit on the Administration and Finance Advisory Board, the Board of Trustees is proposing a $266 total tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students, and a $803 total tuition increase for out-of-state undergraduates.

“None of the other UMass [universities] are raising tuition for out of state or in state students, and there might be Lowell I think possibly is raising fees but the majority of the schools are not raising fees either,” said former SGA president Sonya Epstein.

Looking at the fee breakdown, the tuition for in-state undergraduates will remain the same, but the additional $266 comes from a hike in residential base rent and board fees, which will apply to all residents. For out-of-state students, this increased fee will be applied, as well as a $537 increase on their tuition, accounting for their total cost increase.

“I think it’s just completely dangerous and unfair, especially to do this in the middle of a pandemic to students when so many of us and our families have already been forced into really tricky financial situations,” Epstein said. “A lot of folks have been forced into financial, food and housing insecurities due to the pandemic and raising tuition fees will only add to that, and we see this devastating impact every single time that tuition fees are raised.”

Epstein, along with other members of the SGA and graduate student senate representatives, joined the administration and the Board of Trustees last Wednesday for two Administration and Finance meetings.

There, students asked for the University’s reason for increasing fees.

“The reasoning that was given is that there’s salary and fringe benefit increases, that includes healthcare, retirement, and unemployment,” Epstein said. “And also facility costs that repair the buildings so they were raising it because of that and also to put money into various strategic investments.”

Epstein also asked why these increased fees are only being carried out by UMass Amherst.

“They basically explained to us that the other schools don’t want to do an out-of-state tuition increase because that’ll stop students from going there and it will have a negative impact on them ultimately,” Epstein said.

“Because we have so many out-of-state students and also that we rank so high that we’re a top research institution, they can afford to do that, which is really disturbing to hear actually because it kind of perpetuates the notion that only upper middle class folks can attend top institutions, which is like part of this pattern that we’ve seen with austerity and just classes in general,” they continued.

In an article from the Boston Herald, the University commented that “The tuition rates being voted on do not reflect the financial aid that students receive,” adding, “The ‘net cost’ of a UMass education for Massachusetts residents is lower and in line with the other New England public universities and far below that of private institutions.”

On the subject of dining and housing, the University said, “these are auxiliary functions, and thus not subsidized by the state appropriation…Therefore, these must be self-supporting and the rates reflect inflation and other expense increases, including those related to COVID health and safety.”

According to Sara McKenna, secretary of University policy, student voices have been blocked out of the decision-making process.

“All student requests to speak at the meeting have been denied. Emails to Trustees as part of the email advocacy campaign have been blocked and returned to sender,” McKenna said in an email statement.

McKenna added that students on the advisory board were notified of the proposed tuition increase and were told they could discuss it at their meeting. However, the student advisory board meeting took place after the Board of Trustees Committee on Administration and Finance had already met and voted to approve the proposal.

“Based on consultation policies between the SGA and the University administration, administrators are required to present such changes to us for a formal conversation before making a decision. As the decision was a foregone conclusion before we discussed it, this was a failure of the administration to meet consultation requirements,” she said.

However, student advocates have found other ways to make their voices heard.

In response to the potential increase in fees, Student Trustee Timothy Scalona and Barkha Bhandari put together a task force of about 10-12 students last week. The group created campaigns for students to get involved and advocate for themselves. Sophomore Gil Kim is a legal studies and psychology double major and a staff member at the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, which is why she is a part of this task force.

“We started strategizing what can we do to prevent this vote from going through or what can we do to spread awareness of this because the Board of Trustees, what they do is not very transparent so much of the student body wasn’t even aware that tuition and fees go up, and that they were voting on this this Wednesday,” said Kim.

Students can send a pre-written email expressing their opposition to the fee increases as a part of the SGA’s email campaign, post graphics on their social media, or change their Zoom background and profile picture to increase awareness.

Physical action will also be taken Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. on the lawn next to the Integrative Learning Center to protest this decision. This protest was originally organized by the Professional Staff Union to protest the lack of support that the administration has given to staff. Now, the event is a joint action between the task force advocating against the tuition increase and the PSU.

“It’s really just an action to show you, like, a physical presence, it’s hard to do this over Zoom, because we can’t have like a visual representation of how many students and how many staff members are in opposition to the way us is handling the finances and support to staff and students so hopefully this physical action is going to be a space where we can draw attention to these issues and bring in people so that we have a visual physical sort of concrete representation of this opposition,” Kim said.

McKenna said, “It is absolutely not the time to raise tuition or fees. The pandemic has not ended and the financial impacts of it will continue for years to come. This further disadvantages low-income and BIPOC students and families, as it has been shown these two groups have been impacted disproportionately by the pandemic, both financially and physically.”

Leigh Appelstein can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LAppelstein. Irina Costache can be reached @[email protected] Follow her on Twitter @irinaacostache.