Editorial: UMass puts proper emphasis on affordability

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus Courtesy photo

Thursday, March 08, 2018

University of Massachusetts President Martin T. Meehan correctly emphasized affordability in his second annual “state of the university” address Monday.

Meehan, a former congressman, said when he attended UMass Lowell 40 years ago as a first-generation college student, he worked nights, weekends and summers so he was able to pay his full tuition, then about $600, or $2,800 in today’s dollars.

However, Meehan pointed out that four decades ago the state provided more than 80 percent of the school’s budget. “Today, the state covers just over 20 percent of the budget. That means that the cost of a UMass education has shifted from the state to students and their families. In just the last 17 years, per-student state funding has declined by 32 percent when adjusted for inflation.”

While Meehan also celebrated the successes of UMass, including its research and development grants that now total  $670 million annually, he pointed out that means “little  to the student for whom hundreds of dollars may be the difference between earning a degree or having to withdraw.

“So while we continue to pursue excellence — and we will pursue excellence — we must remain affordable for students from all backgrounds,” Meehan continued. “Because affordability, which is central to our mission, is no longer guaranteed by our status as a public university.”

Meehan’s remarks echoed a report released last week by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a Boston-based group advocating for more state spending on higher education. The report states: “Deep cuts in state support for public higher education have contributed to some of the highest tuition and fees increases in the nation from 2001 to 2016, (which) doubled the share of postsecondary education costs borne by students and their families, from about 30 percent to around 60 percent.”

As a result, according to the report, students attending public four-year colleges and universities in Massachusetts are forced to borrow more, and between 2004 and 2016 their average student loan debt increased by 77 percent, more than any other state except Delaware. 

Graduates of UMass and other state universities now average about $30,350 in debt, compared to $32,355  for graduates of private colleges in Massachusetts, the report concludes.

Meehan said in recent visits to all five UMass campuses, he learned from students that, “It’s clear their finances weigh heavily on them, and that debt impacts their career choices.” 

He described a five-point plan to increase affordability for UMass students by expanding online programs; building more partnerships with nonprofits working to increase access for low-income students; increasing collaboration with businesses; raising $200 million during the next 10 years earmarked specifically for financial aid; and providing leadership in lobbying against federal policies such as the Higher Education Reauthorization Act before Congress that “would reduce federal financial aid by $15 billion over the next decade and eliminate the loan forgiveness program for public service.”

Meehan said that while UMass has been a leader in online education, and now serves more than 30,000 students, “by expanding our programming, we can reach more working adults, people with incomplete college credit and others seeking to advance their careers.”

Meehan called for the university to improve its online technology, as well as diversifying its program offerings.

Stronger ties with the state’s businesses are the goal of a new corporate endowment initiative. Meehan said he would meet with the state’s “30 largest employers to make the case not only for direct investment in scholarships, but for more paid internships and co-ops, as well as debt repayment and tuition assistance programs for employees.

“These investments by the private sector not only help our graduates, they help companies recruit and retain them,” Meehan said.

If the five campuses succeed in raising $200 million during the next decade, it would “double our financial aid endowment and allow us to provide scholarships to 4,000 more students each year,” Meehan said. “I’ve pledged my full support to the chancellors in achieving this goal, which will require greater outreach to individuals and a student-focused approach to fundraising appeals.”

We commend Meehan for drawing the blueprint to make a UMass education more affordable. We hope that he, other education officials, politicians, and leaders in the nonprofit and business sectors have the will to execute that plan.