The price tag for one school year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst could rise to $17,399 next fall, a 32 percent increase from four years ago.
The UMass Board of Trustees is expected to approve the increase -- which includes tuition, fees, and room and board charges -- at its quarterly meeting next month. Yesterday, the board's finance committee endorsed increases for all five campuses.
The UMass-Amherst increases are raising concerns about whether a public education is becoming too costly for many Bay State high school graduates. Student leaders at Amherst say the cost is forcing students to work two or three jobs, take out loans with high interest rates, or put more college costs, such as textbooks, on their credit cards.
"Students are being forced to go thousands of dollars into debt," said Mishy Leiblum, a student trustee from Amherst.
Robert Connolly, the university system's spokesman, said UMass has tried keeping increases to a minimum. Tuition dollars go directly to the state while fees are retained on campuses. President Jack Wilson, he said, has been encouraging trustees to keep tuition and fee increases, excluding room and board, at or below the increase in the cost of living, since taking office in September 2003.
Next school year's tuition and fees at Amherst will be $9,921, a 3.4 percent or $326 increase. The cost of living increase, he said, is 3.6 percent.
"The president and the board are committed to affordability to the fullest extent possible," Connolly said. "We are still able to offer affordable excellence."
The system has control over only the fees because tuition is set by the state Board of Higher Education, which has not raised the rates in at least five years. Tuition ranges from a high of $1,714 at Amherst and Boston to a low of $1,417 at Dartmouth.
UMass officials say that students at UMass-Amherst are getting a better deal than their peers at other public flagship campuses in New England. For in-state students, next year's price tag at the University of New Hampshire could hit $18,500, a 26 percent increase from five years ago; at the University of Rhode Island, $17,691, a 30 percent increase; and the University of Connecticut, $17,500, a 28 percent increase, according to data collected by UMass.
UMass didn't have five-year data comparisons for Vermont or Maine because projected rates were not available for next year.
Last fall, UMass-Amherst students overwhelming passed a referendum asking trustees to freeze tuition and fees and devote more money to financial aid.
"For me, I'm paying for school all in loans," said sophomore Vanessa Snow, 19, of Boston, who says she has taken out $28,000 in loans and expects she will need to take another $20,000 to finish her education.
Snow said she is planning to move off campus next year to save money. Room and board on campus costs $7,478 or about $830 a month for the nine-month period students attend classes.
Students at the UMass-Amherst campus are not the only ones feeling the squeeze in the UMass system. The average tuition and fees, excluding room and board, across the system will be $9,221, which is $303 or 3.4 percent more than this year. Each campus is still finalizing costs for next year, but trustees are restricting increases to 3.4 percent.
Students at UMass-Dartmouth could pay $17,755 next year for tuition, fees and room and board, an increase of $553 or 3.2 percent. Students at the Dartmouth campus pay about $400 more than those in Amherst. In Lowell, the proposed rate is $15,709, a $745 increase or 5 percent more. At the Boston campus, which has no dormitories, the rate could be $8,837, a $291 or 3.4 percent increase.
UMass officials say the increases are largely the consequence of a reduction in state aid. The system this year received approximately $443 million in aid, about $100 million less than in 2000. The Legislature is considering a bill that would provide public higher education with millions of dollars more for financial aid, building construction, and other costs in the coming years.
But Stephen Tocco, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees, said he doubts the system will receive a windfall next year because of a state revenue shortfall.
"It's a daunting picture," said Tocco, who has been pushing for more state aid for universities. ". . . We need to regroup as an institution and not expect a sea of new money."