UMass looks at another fee hike

Costs could rise 6 to 8 percent; wage contracts, funding loss cited

By Noah Bierman and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / May 23, 2011

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University of Massachusetts students may be facing a cost increase of 6 to 8 percent, the chairman of the board confirmed yesterday. If approved, it would add to the 15.8 percent increase OK’d two years ago.

Chancellors from the University of Massachusetts’ five campuses are scheduled to meet today with outgoing UMass President Jack M. Wilson to discuss the proposal.

Fees could rise as much as $880 per year for the average UMass undergraduate student; that would raise the combined tuition and fees for in-state students to an average of $11,900 per year.

“It’s such a bad situation,’’ Michael G. Fox, a recent UMass Amherst graduate, said of the climbing costs. “The financial interest of the university [is being pitted] against the affordability and access for the general student population,’’ added Fox, who serves as a student representative on the university’s board.

James J. Karam, chairman of the UMass board, discounted the idea that the potential increase in costs raises new questions about the public university’s ability to remain accessible.

Higher costs do not automatically mean less access for poor and middle-class students, he said, noting that the university has traditionally set aside 25 percent to 30 percent from the increases for financial aid and would do so again this year.

The UMass board’s financial committee will vote on new tuition and fees June 1, a week before the full board takes up the matter.

Karam said UMass is making cuts to solve some of its financial problems, but will still need to ask students to pay higher fees.

University officials say they are looking for cuts to help plug a $54.5 million budget gap, but must contend with salary increases awarded to UMass unions and the loss of $37.8 million in federal stimulus money.

The raise for UMass union workers will cost the university system $16.7 million, according to officials.

The Patrick administration signed off on the pay increase as part of a three-year contract recommended to the Legislature, which gave UMass employees a 1 percent raise in the first year, and raises of 3 percent to 3.5 percent in the second and third years. Patrick and the Legislature funded the first year of the increase, as they have in past years, but have declined in their current budget proposals to fund the second year, which begins July 1.

“It’s always a frustration,’’ said Karam. “We’ve got collective bargaining agreements that we face, but on the other hand we understand the reality of the economics of the state.’’

Patrick’s budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, said the state set the parameters for UMass’s contract with its unions, but left negotiations to university officials, with a warning that the state would not be able to pick up the costs after the first year of the contract. He said UMass employees — like other state employees — went without pay increases in the two previous budget years, which helped the university weather the depths of the recession.

University officials say they have tried to minimize cost increases in recent years by cutting spending. But the cuts mean students get less for their money — fewer professors, classrooms that are cleaned less often, older lab equipment. State financial support for UMass has dropped from $10,028 per student at its height in 2008 to $7,121 in the latest budget proposals for the year that begins July, according to UMass.

“We’re going to cut our way to mediocrity,’’ said Karam.

The Amherst and Lowell campuses offer free tuition to students who graduate from community colleges with a 3.0 grade point average or better.

“We provide substantial aid to families [earning as much] as $90,000, $100,000 a year in income,’’ he said. “When we don’t raise the price, we’re saving higher-income families money. We’re not saving lower income families money.’’

Undergraduate tuition and fees are now averaging $11,012 at UMass campuses. Including room and board, a UMass Amherst undergraduate typically spends $20,546 per year.

UMass spokesman Robert P. Connolly said that still compares favorably with private colleges, which can cost more than $50,000 when room and board are included.

“We’re talking about a top-flight university education for a fraction of what people are paying at private institutions,’’ he said.

But Massachusetts’ costs rank among the highest in the country at four-year public universities. Tuition and fees for in-state students at UMass Amherst rank 49th most expensive among 598 four-year public universities surveyed by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Boston (73), Lowell (75), and Dartmouth (80) campuses aren’t far behind.

A report by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center ranks Massachusetts public four-year universities eighth most expensive among state systems.

Between 2004 and 2008, UMass raised fees yearly, between 3 percent and 4 percent. In 2009, the board approved a 15.8 percent fee increase, but an infusion of federal stimulus cash allowed the university to award one-year rebates, delaying much of the impact until this year.

“It’s not fair at all,’’ said Tung Tram, a computer science major who emigrated from Vietnam in 2008. Back home, a year of university costs about $1,000, he said.

“I wanted the experience of studying here,’’ continued Tram, 25, who said he keeps a tight budget to manage rising college costs. “I can’t tell if it’s worth the cost here yet. That will depend on if I can get a good job.’’

Public campuses across the country are having difficulty keeping student costs down as state legislatures deal with lower tax collections.

Last month, the Arizona Board of Regents approved a 22 percent tuition increase for the University of Arizona, though one-year rebates were expected to mitigate some of that impact.

As states shift more of the costs of higher education to private donors and students, they are changing the nature of public higher education.

“We’re not putting enough money into higher education,’’ said Representative Tom Sannicandro of Framingham, House chairman of the Joint Committee on 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.’’

Leaders in the House and Senate say they will not raise taxes this year and, because of a loss of an overall budget hole of $1.9 billion, have been cutting programs across state government.

“Hopefully, this is the bottom of the trough,’’ Sannicandro said. “We really need to be sinking money into higher education if we want our economy to thrive.’’

Globe correspondent Christopher J. Girard contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at and Frank Phillips is at