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Mass. colleges see costs rise, aid fall

Needy students getting hit hard, officials report

Massachusetts cut spending on grants and scholarships for college students by more than $20 million in the past five years, at the same time enrollments increased, and public campuses, battered by state budget cuts, boosted tuition and fees by 50 to 75 percent, according to state budget records and officials.

The result is that fewer needy students are receiving state aid, and many grant awards are smaller than they were in the past, financial aid administrators said.

The state's decision to offer less financial aid while also drastically reducing campus funding differs from the approach of many other states, where officials said financial aid budgets were held steady or increased during the recent recession in an attempt to keep poor students in college.

But in Massachusetts, spending on grants and scholarships fell 22 percent in five years, from a peak of $105 million in fiscal 2000 to $82 million this year. State support for the budgets of the 29 public campuses, which enroll more than 180,000 students, declined at a similar rate.

Governor Mitt Romney has proposed a slight increase in funding for state campuses next year, but no separate increase for financial aid. State legislative leaders predict another tight budget in 2006.

By contrast, in Virginia, where public campuses lost more than 20 percent of their state funding in the past five years, forcing steep tuition increases, undergraduate scholarship spending rose 26 percent, officials said.

Wisconsin's 26-campus system lost $250 million in state funding and also raised tuition, but it saw state grant aid for students roughly double in the last four years.

Governors in both states have proposed more growth in financial aid funding next year. Maryland's governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has proposed a one-year, $10 million increase in spending on need-based student aid.

''The concern is that we're moving into higher tuition mode, so we're trying to ensure access for students," said Freda Harris, associate vice president of budget and planning for the Wisconsin system.

Grant funding for Massachusetts students grew steadily in the 1990s, increasing $32 million, or 44 percent, from 1998 to 2000. Romney aides said last week that recent Republican governors continued to request stable or increased financial aid budgets but that the Legislature opted to cut the grant money.

State Senator Therese Murray of Plymouth, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the recession-driven cuts were made across the higher education budget without singling out financial aid for separate consideration.

''We feel the same pressure from people who need healthcare and transportation," she said.

Student aid in Massachusetts falls in two main categories: Grants, awarded to students who attend public or private colleges based on their financial need, and tuition waivers, awarded to public college students based on need and to those in more than a dozen other categories, including foster children and valedictorians.

Waivers cost the state nothing upfront, but decrease tuition income returned by the campuses to the state's general fund each year.

Most waivers are income-based; their value, about $18 million, has been stable in recent years. Romney's new Adams scholarship, to be awarded to students with high MCAS scores, is another waiver. It will trim the tuition returned to the state by an additional $8 million next year.

Because the largest state grant program, MASS Grant, guarantees help to every eligible family that meets its May deadline, program administrators have been forced to cut the size of some awards in recent years in order to continue helping families.

But, even with smaller awards to those who enroll out of state or at private schools, the number of MASS Grant recipients has dropped by more than 5,000 to fewer than 27,000, officials said, because the program can no longer afford to help those who apply after May.

Later applicants include a disproportionate number of low-income community college students, whose enrollment deadlines are later than those at four-year schools, said program officials.

Some state aid has simply been eliminated. The $3 million Tomorrow's Teachers program, which covered four years of tuition and fees for high-achieving students who agreed to teach in the state's public schools after college, was dropped in 2003. Scholarship recipient Erica Deluca was finishing her sophomore year at Worcester State College when she learned her aid had been cut, forcing her to borrow money to cover the shortfall.

''I felt desperate, almost -- the letter came 10 days before our bills were due," said Deluca, 22, a Franklin High School graduate who has $11,000 in student loans.

As state aid has fallen, tuition and fees have skyrocketed, the result of campus efforts to offset state budget cuts. Tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts increased from $4,700 to $8,400 in the last five years; state college charges grew from $3,000 to $4,600; and community colleges increased rates from $2,000 to about $3,300 per year.

Enrollments at public colleges have also increased. The number of students systemwide grew 5 percent from 1998 to 2003, according to the state Board of Higher Education, and the upswing included a 12 percent increase at community colleges, which tend to serve more poor students.

''Whenever you have an increase in enrollment, you see an increase in financial need," said Clantha McCurdy, director of the state Office of Student Financial Assistance, which administers the grant programs.

State assistance, already a small portion of total financial aid to students in Massachusetts, has become an even smaller piece of the pie in recent years. Across the five-campus UMass system, for example, 69 percent of all need-based aid to students was federally funded last year, while state aid declined to 12 percent of the total, down from 14 percent the previous year.

To try and fill the gap, the university increased financial-aid spending from $36 million to $48 million, at the same time it was reeling from a three-year, $150 million state funding cut.

It was simultaneously facing other escalating costs, such as those associated with repairing aging buildings and replacing hundreds of employees who accepted recent early retirement offers.

''The decline in state aid has put a strain on the campuses to contribute more, and we've been holding our own, but each year it gets more and more difficult," said Judy Keyes, director of financial aid at UMass-Boston, where the state supply of need-based aid declined by $800,000 in five years.

At the same time, she said, the number of low-income students applying for aid has increased. ''Students have had to take out more loans," she said.

Concern about low-income students led the state Board of Higher Education to establish a new financial aid standard two years ago for the nine state colleges and 15 community colleges: The campuses would be required to meet the financial need of at least 85 percent of students who applied for aid and met eligibility guidelines. The new rule covers only direct costs, such as tuition, fees, and books and doesn't guarantee help with the room-and-board charges, which make up roughly half the cost of college for many resident students.

Higher Education chancellor Judy Gill said the colleges have surpassed the standard, meeting 90 percent of students' direct need. UMass has met student need at similar levels in recent years.

Gill said she requested a $5 million increase in financial aid funding next year, a request the governor did not include in his budget. More discussion is needed on the balance between state and institutional aid, she said.

''The institutions should have a responsibility to work to provide financial aid," Gill said, ''but there is a significant burden the state should assume, and we need to look at what's happened and have a policy discussion."

Need-based grant aid in Connecticut fell from $38 million in 2001 to $32 million this year, a 16-percent decline, as a result of budget cuts, but state financial aid budgets have fared better elsewhere in New England.

Maine campuses have seen budget reductions, but the state grant program has been fairly stable, declining from $12 million in 2003 to $11.1 million this year.

In New Hampshire, where the total budget for higher education has increased every year since 2000, state grant funding more than doubled in the same period, from $1.5 million to $3.1 million, and another $3 million has been requested for next year.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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