Derrick Z. Jackson

Cutting to mediocrity at UMass

UMass graduates celebrate following commencement in Amherst earlier this month. UMass graduates celebrate following commencement in Amherst earlier this month. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / May 24, 2011

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THE UNIVERSITY of Massachusetts is on course for permanent mediocrity. The Globe reported this week that UMass campuses are likely headed for another 6 to 8 percent increase in fee hikes, on top of the nearly 16 percent increase two years ago. UMass Amherst’s in-state tuition, fees, room, and board are already among the highest in the nation for flagship universities, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. They are $1,726 more than the in-state charges for the University of Texas, and $4,838 more than the University of Wisconsin.

UMass Dartmouth already charges more than the flagship University of Virginia. UMass Lowell is more expensive than flagship Ohio State, and tuition and fees for commuting students at UMass Boston are more than at Texas and other prestigious schools such as Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, or Purdue. Our state college system also offers comparisons that ought to give pause. The nearly $17,000 of total costs for Bridgewater State, Worcester State, and Salem State are more than such flagships as Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa.

Now, to be clear, this comparison is not meant as a gratuitous knock on the quality of our state schools, especially since I am a public university graduate and currently have sons in state colleges. But it is time for a reality check when costs for the smaller state colleges in Massachusetts surpass those of Madison and Chapel Hill. It would be one thing if this was due to the high cost of living in the East, compared to the Midwest and the South. That is not the case. The fact remains that despite all the political platitudes about public higher education, respect for it on Beacon Hill remains so begrudging as to doom any attempt to create a nationally respected state university system.

No state in the nation cut its appropriations for higher ed more than Massachusetts did between fiscal years 2008 to 2010, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. We cut appropriations 37 percent; Alabama was second, at 26 percent. As measured against personal income, Massachusetts has the second-lowest appropriations in the United States. If current budget proposals are approved, UMass state funding will plummet from $10,028 per student in 2008 to $7,121.

UMass board chairman James Karam said, “We’re going to cut our way to mediocrity.’’ He is right, but part of the problem is that UMass leaders themselves cannot make up their mind which direction to go in. The school generates world-class buzz in research and the arts, and grants free tuition to community college graduates with a B average or better. But it also has a parallel pattern of blundering, including a proposed medical school for Springfield that may get UMass Amherst chancellor Robert Holub fired or the ill-timed plan to throw millions of dollars at the UMass Amherst football team to elevate it to the top level of Division 1.

But it is also unrealistic to expect broad-based excellence out of a system where state investment is so obviously paltry. The House chairman of the state’s Joint Committee on Higher Education, Tom Sannicandro of Framingham, told the Globe, “We’re not putting enough money into higher education. It’s not because we don’t value higher education. It’s because we don’t have the money to put in it.’’

We should find out if that is really true. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is money somewhere. For instance, data kept by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center indicate that while spending on higher education has declined dramatically since fiscal year 2002, economic development tax breaks have risen by 35 percent, to about $2 billion a year. Last year, the center said neither Governor Patrick nor the Legislature have analyzed whether such breaks are effective. Last month, state auditor Suzanne Bump said such tax breaks disappear into a “black box’’ that lacks any “basic accountability and transparency.’’

Meanwhile, with every budget cut and fee hike, the future of the UMass system is being boxed in.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at