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Is UMass Pricing Out Kids Like Joe Drury?

As the system's flagship school in Amherst becomes more expensive, more competitive, and acts more like a public Ivy, it's time to ask what happens to the mission of furthering the common good - and who'll get left behind?

Joe Drury (left) resorted to selling some old pants on eBay to help pay his way at UMass-Amherst. At right, construction of apartment-style residence halls and other campus improvements are intended to attract more highly qualified applicants.
Joe Drury (left) resorted to selling some old pants on eBay to help pay his way at UMass-Amherst. At right, construction of apartment-style residence halls and other campus improvements are intended to attract more highly qualified applicants. (Photos / Andrew Greto)

GROWING UP IN PITTSFIELD, JOSEPH DRURY JR. never thought of himself as different. His father worked as a machinist at the General Electric defense systems plant; his mother juggled a home day-care business and evening waitress shifts. After his father lost his job in the massive layoffs of the late 1980s, the family struggled, but so did the families of most of Drury's friends. "Everyone I knew on a personal level went through some kind of hardship because of the layoffs," Drury says. Nothing about his circumstances felt particularly unusual - until Drury's first semester at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst three years ago.

During an Introduction to Economics class, the professor asked students to break into groups of five and talk about their families' economic backgrounds. "We went around the group, and I was shocked by what I heard," Drury says. "The first person said her family income was about $250,000 a year, and she thought they were middle class. The next person said something like $500,000." Nobody came in under $200,000. Drury, the last to speak, found himself trying to persuade the group that he wasn't exaggerating. "They didn't believe me when I said my family made less than $25,000 a year."

Each team shared its findings, revealing Drury to be, as he says, "the poorest kid in the class." The point of the exercise was to impress upon students how different their backgrounds were, but, instead, Drury was amazed by their collective privilege.

The working-class kid, once a staple of the UMass-Amherst undergraduate population, is becoming an oddity on a campus increasingly geared toward the affluent. Established in 1867 through federal educational land grants, UMass-Amherst has evolved over the years. It's gone from being a tiny agricultural college to a sprawling state university and reliable "safety" school to a major research institution that is the flagship of the state's five-campus university system. What began as an affordable ticket to a higher standard of living for anyone who was willing to work hard enough is now, according to a recent USA Today survey, the fifth most expensive of the country's 67 public flagship schools.

While tuition remains relatively low, steep increases in student fees (which cover everything from sports to health benefits to course fees) and room and board have put a UMass-Amherst education out of reach for many lower-income families. More than a decade of budget cuts has whittled the state's contribution from a hearty half to barely one-third of the university's total funds. Long among the stingiest states in per-student spending on public higher education, Massachusetts is effectively forcing its most prestigious teaching and research institution to rely more heavily on private fund-raising, student charges, and research dollars, putting it on the road to privatization.

Though this pattern is playing out around the country, it has so far generated little controversy, because it relieves a bit of the overwhelming fiscal pressure burdening states and dovetails neatly with the conservative mood for self-sufficiency and free-market fixes. The trend is healthy insofar as it stabilizes and strengthens public universities by keeping them focused on their mission and lessening their vulnerability to the whims of state lawmakers. But the impact on access is troubling. Without strong state support, public higher education, the time-honored pathway to opportunity, looks more and more like the private system it was meant to counteract.

NATIONALLY, THE AVERAGE PORTION OF public college and university revenues coming from the government fell from 50 percent to 36 percent between 1980 and 2000. The drop-off in state funding has been particularly precipitous in Massachusetts. Between 2001 and 2004, funding for the five-campus UMass system, nine state colleges, and 15 community colleges declined by 33 percent, the steepest reduction in the country.

The Amherst campus has compensated by sharply paring tenure-track faculty from 1,220 in 1986 to 921 today and nearly quadrupling total student fees over the same period. The university is still a bargain for in-state undergraduate students compared with the state's pricey private universities - $15,795 for tuition, fees, room, and board, while the formerly blue-collar Northeastern University charges $39,000, for example, and Boston College, a one-time commuter school, asks $42,000. The Amherst price tag becomes more daunting, however, when considered relative to the state's median family income of roughly $67,000.

"We've begun to price out low-income students, and we're heading toward middle-income students," says Max Page, an associate professor of architecture and history at UMass-Amherst. "Low-income students aren't getting here, and those who are here are taking longer to graduate," he says, because they have to juggle school and work.

Under Chancellor John Lombardi, who came aboard three years ago, UMass-Amherst is abandoning the notion that the state will take care of it - a conceit Lombardi links to what he calls Massachusetts's "public-dependent" mentality. The new funding model does assume the state will provide enough support over the next five years to allow the university to expand the faculty by 250. But over the next seven years, Lombardi will pursue $350 million in private donations from the university's 194,000 alumni. Half of those funds will be earmarked for upgrading the 1,463-acre campus's research, learning, and athletic facilities to meet the more demanding expectations of students and parents and to raise the university's profile among national research universities. Most of the remainder will fatten the university's $82 million endowment.

Major fund-raising campaigns are also in development at the UMass campuses in Dartmouth, Lowell, Worcester, and Boston. Michael Collins, the newly appointed chancellor of the Boston commuter campus, says he is putting together a development team and beginning to form relationships with potential donors who can help raise the "many, many, many millions" required to restore the crumbling physical complex and further the school's mission to serve a highly diverse urban population.

"In the past," Lombardi says, "the state was very generous to the University of Massachusetts, built all the buildings, provided all the money. It took a long time for people to realize that the decline in state revenue as a proportion of the university budget was likely to be permanent. . . . We didn't figure this out as fast here as it was figured out in the public-university sector around the country." He adds, "We're going to catch up."

Though the state may still own the university, its real master is now the marketplace. Marta Calas, an associate professor at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass-Amherst, says people ought to be concerned about three things: how private interests influence faculty research, how that research is taught to students, and which students will have access to this knowledge. "It's horrifying that people are not up in arms over this issue," she says.

"We respond to those who support us," Lombardi points out. "What do you think parents ask who come here on the tour? Do you think they ask whether we're kind? Whether their kids can play and learn and have a nice experience? Yes, but then they ask, 'What is your average SAT?' If it's lower than the place next door, they'll go next door. They vote with their feet. They're interested in having their child sitting next to somebody who's smarter than their child. . . . Everybody wants to know where you are in the stack."

The most well-thumbed stack is, of course, compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report, whose "America's Best Colleges" issue is so influential, it guides the decision making of many a board of trustees. UMass-Amherst currently ranks 104th among the top national universities overall - but Lombardi would like to catch up with schools like Indiana University, Bloomington (74) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (42).

The blunt and businesslike Lombardi, who raised $700 million while president of the University of Florida from 1990 to 1999, is a pro at the prestige game. A new development team is targeting high-powered and influential alumni as part of the massive fund-raising effort led by Eugene Isenberg, a Houston oil magnate and a leading contributor to UMass-Amherst (the university's school of management bears his name). A posh new members-only alumni club in Boston aims to add an air of exclusivity to the state-school image. Admissions staff are devoting more time and resources to recruiting top-notch out-of-state students, who pay double what in-state students are charged. Construction is well underway on four apartment-style residence halls that will keep pace with accommodations offered at top-tier universities. The administration is holding off on naming the new halls, anticipating another fund-raising opportunity. "If somebody wants to step up and put their name on them for a price, we're happy to accommodate them," says school spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

Most faculty, students, and alumni welcome this new energy and enthusiasm, which they say is already increasing morale on an aging campus battered by decades of the state's benign neglect and persistent academic infighting. Their optimism is further buoyed by legislative leaders' professed commitment to restoring faculty to a level commensurate with peer institutions and to continue funding the state matching program for private donations through 2010. In March, a state Senate task force issued a report that said the UMass system's research and development capabilities are crucial to restoring the state's economic competitiveness. That report has generated legislation calling for a gradual increase in state appropriations over the next five to seven years, to close what the task force estimated is a systemwide $400 million funding gap. And late last month, UMass asked the Legislature for $120 million to build research facilities, hoping it would help in the race for research dollars and boost prestige.

Elsewhere in the country, as the most competitive public universities have edged closer to privatization, they have nearly eliminated low-income kids from their ranks, not just because of high tuition, but because these students typically score lower on the standardized tests used for admissions. At the University of Virginia (23 in the U.S. News rankings), which derives just 8 percent of its revenues from the state, three-quarters of the students have no financial need at all. "It's a classic example of the wealthy getting wealthier and the poor getting poorer," says David Breneman, dean of that university's Curry School of Education.

At UMass-Amherst over the last five years, on average 17 percent of incoming undergrads were eligible for Pell Grants - not bad for a major public university these days, but still less than the 25 percent average in the latter half of the 1990s. The poorest students, those from families unable to contribute anything toward their education, constituted 4 percent of this year's freshmen class, half the number a decade ago.

The trend has rankled a group of student government leaders, who complain that, by focusing on raising the university's profile among the smart and affluent, the administration is neglecting the state's low-income and minority populations. "What we have to ask ourselves is why this university exists," says Pavel Payano, 20, president of the undergraduate student government. "If the university exists for the people that can't afford a private college," he reasons, "then the state should be putting in more money."

Dan Clawson, a sociology professor at UMass-Amherst, says he hopes that Massachusetts will restore enough funding to broaden access. "We're privatizing the institution over time. That's the trend. It's exactly the wrong way to go," he says. "As college becomes more of a necessity, it ought to be more public." Admissions staff should try to identify low-income students who "are intellectually curious and who want to give back to their communities," qualities that don't necessarily show up on SAT scores, he says.

THE COST OF PRIVATE EDUCATION WAS SO far out of reach for Joe Drury's family that he never even considered it an option. After graduating from Pittsfield High School with a 3.5 grade point average, Drury enrolled in an electrical engineering program at Berkshire Community College. Though he was able to juggle classes and a full-time job as a prep cook, Drury gradually realized he wanted more than just a practical skill. He decided to pursue a degree in social thought and political economy at UMass-Amherst.

The financial-aid package he received included enough grants and loans to cover tuition and fees; he saved on room and board by sharing an apartment with two other students. He took a work-study job at a student-run vegetarian cafe on campus, but it didn't pay enough to live on, so Drury had to borrow another several thousand dollars each semester. His social circle consisted mainly of other students from Pittsfield, because it was easier not to be around the students with money. "It's like a barrier, you know. If they wanted to go to a fancy bar that sells $8 drinks, you know, I can't do that," he says. "I go to the bar that sells $1.50 drafts."

Drury completed the requirements for his bachelor's in two years and then, in fall 2004, began a master's program in labor relations at UMass-Amherst. He couldn't get a paid research position in his department the first year, so Drury borrowed another $6,000 to cover tuition. Left with just $300 in the bank, he began hawking his possessions on eBay. "I sold my TV, some DVDs, even some old pants," he says. "I had to live a really, really limited lifestyle I never even went out for coffee. I ate pasta all the time, and I learned how to make my own bread." Friends loaned him $100 here and $50 there, but they didn't really have it to spare. During winter break last year, Drury says he spent a month working 65-hour weeks at two restaurant jobs to earn enough money to pay them back. That was the winter he and his roommates couldn't scrape together enough money to fill the oil tank. The temperature fell so low in the apartment that the pipes burst. His landlord is suing him and his roommates.

As he recalls those days now during a conversation at an Amherst coffee shop, Drury, a slender, dark-haired fellow who looks much younger than his 24 years, sounds more resigned than resentful. "If one more thing had fallen out of place," he says calmly, "I would have left." He relishes the coffee and pastry before him, luxuries made possible by a newly secured department research position that pays about $300 every two weeks. He plans to graduate this spring.

At 32, Umass-Amherst graduate Jennifer Eastman-Lawrence, who works at the university's Center for Student Development, doesn't earn enough to begin paying off her student loans.

Jennifer Eastman-Lawrence was only able to pay for her education at UMass-Amherst by drawing it out over seven years. Poor enough to qualify for reduced-price school lunches as a kid, Eastman-Lawrence enrolled at UMass in 1991 - right before a round of fee hikes that sparked huge student protest rallies. Pell Grants and a work-study job helped with costs, but the bulk of her assistance came through student loans. After two years, Eastman-Lawrence cut back to two classes a semester, which allowed her to put in 30 hours at an above-minimum-wage work-study job. Nevertheless, when she graduated in 1998, she'd amassed about $25,000 in student loans.

Married now with two children, Eastman-Lawrence, 32, is employed as a customer service manager in the university's Center for Student Development. Together, she and her husband don't earn enough to pay her student loans as well as family expenses. So she's found a way to stall. "I have to fit in six credits a semester so I can defer my payments," Eastman-Lawrence says. As a university employee, she takes the non-degree courses for free.

Pell Grants cover just 36 percent of the average cost of a public four-year college, a 6 percent decline since 2001-2002. At the state level, spending on grants and scholarships has declined by 22 percent over the past five years, forcing students to borrow more money. A recent report from the College Board warned that the combination of rising tuition and reduced financial assistance is making it more difficult for even the most qualified low-income students to finance their education. High-scoring students from the highest socioeconomic quartile are graduating from college at more than double the rate of high-scoring students at the lowest end of the income spectrum.

The price tag at UMass-Amherst ($9,278 for yearly tuition and fees plus $6,517 for room and board) deters many low-income students from even applying, guidance counselors say. In Revere, for example, Ruth Davis, the district director of guidance, says high school graduates prefer to commute from home to UMass-Boston ($5,241 for tuition and fees), UMass-Lowell ($8,166), and Salem State ($5,588). The more affordable state schools and community colleges are crucial, Davis says, because more than half of high school students in Revere are from low-income families.

A public higher education system is supposed to provide niches for every combination of ambition and debt tolerance and income. Yet the dwindling number of low-income students at the state flagship isn't a university problem, Lombardi says, so much as a societal problem. The "terrible" school systems in some urban centers are turning out kids who can't meet UMass-Amherst's rising admission standards, he says. The result is not that the university is getting all of the rich kids so much as that it's getting all of the prepared kids, he says.

Since 2001, when the state Board of Higher Education required that accepted students at all four-year public campuses have at least a 3.0 high school grade point average (or SAT scores high enough to compensate), the average freshman's GPA at UMass-Amherst has crept up to 3.37; the average combined SAT score is 1,142. The number of applicants is also rising, further stiffening the competition. The impact can be seen in the college-selection process: High-achieving students in high-income areas are giving UMass a second look. In the last three years, Wellesley High School, where 80 percent of graduates go on to private universities, sent more applications to UMass-Amherst than to any other college. "Part of that's financial, but it's also the improved profile," says Thom Hughart, Wellesley's guidance director. "When I first got here 15 years ago, all you needed to get into UMass was a 2.0 and maybe a 900 on your SATs."

"Rolling quality into the mix" inevitably strains access, and therefore requires a delicate balancing act, says Stephen Tocco, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education. The state cannot allow tuition and fees to continue climbing without "losing a lot of young people who need to go up the economic ladder," but standards must continue to rise if UMass is to reach the status of a world-class university. The solution to the access problem at the top, he says, is being more strategic about leveraging the system as a whole. "There's no reason why kids who don't go to UMass shouldn't get a great education at one of the state colleges or by starting out at a community college," Tocco says. "Our job is to build upon the individual strengths of these institutions and create centers of excellence."

Eduardo Bustamante, 24, a senior majoring in exercise science, worries that the ultimate outcome will be the funneling of underprivileged kids into less-prestigious and less-challenging community colleges. Last year, when he was undergraduate president, Bustamante filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the administration seeking extensive student demographic data, including ethnicity, income, and town of residence. He and other student activists involved in a campaign called "Take Back UMass" suspect the university's published data showing black and Hispanic enrollment at roughly 8 percent over the past few years may be padded with international students and affluent out-of-staters. They accuse the administration of deliberately neglecting in-state low-income and minority students by targeting their recruitment efforts elsewhere. The university has not yet provided the data, and the attorney general's office is now handling the dispute.

"I see the school realigning toward a particular type of student: affluent, science-oriented, out-of-state," says Jeff Napolitano, a 27-year-old undergraduate from Waltham who helps organize the "Take Back UMass" effort. "It's not that they're being too selective, but who they're being selective about.

"There's a philosophy that this is a public university that is supposed to be accessible to the people of Massachusetts," he says. "If you work hard, you can rise up to get a good education here. That's disappearing - that philosophy is going away."

UMass does target its recruiting to underrepresented populations, Lombardi insists, but ultimately, he says, admissions decisions must come down to merit. "Folks say to me, 'You're discriminating against this, that, and the other group.' I say, 'Wait a minute. The only way to admit people that does not take into account merit - that is, SATs and GPAs - is to do a random selection. All of you who are in favor of a lottery for getting into UMass-Amherst, raise your hands.' Nobody raises their hands, because they might not be lucky. They'd rather be hardworking and smart and rewarded."

While UMass-Amherst may be toying with exclusivity, it's a long way from becoming a public Ivy - an elite school like Rutgers in New Jersey or the University of California, Berkeley. And some top flagship schools are trying to reconnect with the low-income students they've left behind by offering more financial aid. The University of Virginia, for example, has launched AccessUVa, which guarantees a free education - without loans or work-study requirements - to qualified applicants with family incomes up to double the poverty level. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is phasing in the Carolina Covenant, a pledge to meet 100 percent of low-income students' financial need in exchange for participation in a work-study program.

But not all states are offering such a debt-free deal. With a student-loan debt surpassing $40,000, Drury needs to get a job right after he graduates in the spring. He hasn't figured out how long it will take to pay it all off. "Twenty, 30 years?" He chuckles. "I try not to think about it."

Lisa Prevost is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to

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