UMass gets $532 million in state budget agreement, potentially limiting fee increases

The allocation, which should mitigate an upcoming 5 to 8 percent fee increase, is higher than some proposals, but much lower than UMass requested.

Photo: Massachusetts State House.
(Courtesy of Hsin Ju Hsu/Wikimedia Commons)

Updated: July 8 at 6:45 p.m.

The long-awaited budget agreement from the Massachusetts Legislature’s conference committee allocates almost $532 million to the University of Massachusetts system.

This is more than initial proposals made by House leadership and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, but lower than the Senate’s $538 million proposal and a significant cut from the $578 million requested by former UMass President Robert Caret earlier this year.

For the past two months, students and community members advocated for no increase in tuition and fees and the maximum possible state funding for the UMass system.

The Student Administration Accountability Coalition received nearly 1,500 signatures on a petition opposing a new $250 information technology fee, and garnered extensive press coverage after members spoke at UMass Board of Trustees meetings on June 10 and June 17.

UMass President Marty Meehan praised students’ efforts on Radio Boston on July 1, his first day as president.

Related: How Marty Meehan could be a new leader in public higher education advocacy 

Earlier this morning, I asked UMass Amherst Student Trustee Emily O’Neil how she felt about state funding for UMass this year and how it affects students’ everyday lives.

She said that she is “certain” that she is “not alone as a UMass student who is mourning the end of the 50/50 plan” that kept fees and tuition frozen for the past two years.

“More and more, I see friends unsure at the end of spring semester of whether they will be able to afford returning in the fall,” Trustee O’Neil continued. “When the state legislature fails to fully fund UMass, it fails to keep the promise of affordable education to its younger citizens.”

O’Neil highlighted that we are “first or second” in most national rankings of K-12 public education, but said that we “turn around” and tell the same students “that they are on their own” when it comes to public higher education.

I also spoke to Charlotte Kelly, who has been leading the fight against fee increases with SAAC. She believes that the $532 million line item shows that legislators listened to the needs of students, even if they didn’t allocate the maximum amount possible.

“Obviously it’s far less than what the UMass system had requested and still continues to prove that Massachusetts underfunds higher education,” Kelly said. “But the legislature did their best to meet students’ requests, so I am glad that they heard our calls.”

At the June 17 meeting, UMass trustees voted to increase student fees by between 6 and 8 percent depending upon which campus a student attends. Additional charges for IT, health services, infrastructure, and athletics will affect only the Amherst campus, according to MassLive.com.

However, the motion passed by the Board included an option to make the fee increases smaller depending on the level of state funding the system will receive for 2015-2016, and the current budget proposal provides more state funding than UMass expected.

The Boston Globe reported that the fee increase could be cut in half if UMass received the $538 million proposed by the Senate. UMass received only $532 million, meaning a smaller decrease.

As a member of the Board of Trustees, O’Neil said that she will act to reduce the average student debt of almost $30,000, which she says is about the same as that of private universities.

O’Neil wants to work with other trustees to find a long-term solution for affordability at UMass that doesn’t depend on “year-to-year haggling” with the Massachusetts Legislature.

Kelly said that trustees and administrators need to put more effort into collaborating with “all students, not just members of student governments,” and that SAAC will push to work with the UMass President because “it’s clear” that is where communication with legislators occurs.

UMass community members and SAAC may continue to seek supplemental funding mid-year for the system, as reported by MassLive.com, which could reduce the fees paid by students for the Spring 2016 semester or provide financial aid to those who can’t afford the increase.

O’Neil hopes that UMass will receive supplemental funding during the year, but said that will only happen in UMass students and their families push state legislators towards that goal.

Kelly agreed that mid-year funding is only possible “if system officials, trustees, and leaders on the five campuses are willing to work together to fight for real change on the state level.”

O’Neil’s main budgetary concern is that, while many private university students leave Massachusetts after receiving degrees, almost two-thirds of UMass alumni stay in the Commonwealth to live and work after they graduate.

When UMass graduates have huge debts, it increases costs for everyone in the state, she said.

“We all need to do a better job at working on issues that affect students,” Kelly echoed.

The budget passed the House by a vote of 153 to 1 and the Senate by a vote of 31 to 5 on the afternoon of July 8, and now sits on Governor Baker’s desk.

Baker can use his line-item veto to unilaterally reduce the funding allocation, which can only be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the House followed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

Zac Bears can reached at zac@dblstand.com.

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