Patrick looks to slash UMass fee increase with stimulus money

Administration officials said the governor's plan will substantially reduce a proposed increase in fees for students at University of Massachusetts in Amherst and other campuses of the system. Administration officials said the governor's plan will substantially reduce a proposed increase in fees for students at University of Massachusetts in Amherst and other campuses of the system. (File/ The Boston Globe)
By Matt Viser and Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009
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University of Massachusetts students would avoid most of a planned $1,500 fee hike under a proposal Governor Deval Patrick is expected to unveil today to distribute $162 million in federal stimulus money among the state's public colleges and universities, two administration officials said.

The measure would provide partial relief for middle-class families and working students at a time when, because of the national recession, they are flocking to public institutions because of lower costs.

About half of the money, $82 million, would go to the University of Massachusetts system and allow officials to soften the fee hikes that were set to go into effect in the next academic year. Instead of $1,500, they might rise by as little as $380, a UMass official said.

The money will also help prevent some faculty layoffs and program cuts, returning state colleges and universities to the same level of funding they had at the beginning of this fiscal year, before the governor made several rounds of budget cuts.

"This is a financial shot in the arm for institutions that have been reeling since the cuts were announced," said one of the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since the governor has yet to announce the plan.

The education spending included in the federal stimulus package is targeted at protecting current services, not stimulating the economy through construction and tax breaks. But education advocates and administration officials say the money could also help the economy because it will prevent layoffs and put more money in the hands of families and students, who could spend that money in other areas. Overall, Massachusetts is expected to receive up to $9 billion in spending and tax cuts from the federal government.

Patrick is scheduled to make the announcement today at the UMass-Boston campus.

Patrick is also planning to unveil that federal stimulus money would help increase funding for Pell Grants and work-study programs. The federal legislation raises the maximum amount for Pell Grants from $4,731 to $5,350 and increases eligibility so an additional 85,000 low-income students can pay for college, according to an administration estimate. The state will have another $9 million in additional funding for work-study programs.

The governor's budget proposal, unveiled in January, included a 16.5 percent cut to the $965.9 million allocated this year for the state's 24 state and community colleges as well as the University of Massachusetts.

The proposal to use federal stimulus funds will make up for most of that cut, meaning the state's higher education system will get about the same amount as it did this year. Patrick has the power to allocate the federal stimulus money, but because the Legislature must approve the budget, he must work with top lawmakers to gather support for his plan.

The 15 percent fee increase, adopted last month by university trustees, would be the largest in several years. It would raise annual tuition costs for in-state undergraduates to an average of $11,000, not including room and board. Fees make up the vast majority of the total; tuition is $1,714 at the Amherst and Boston campuses and $1,454 at UMass-Lowell and UMass-Dartmouth.

Officials at several colleges said they were thrilled by the news of a federal stimulus boost but said it was too early to pinpoint the final relief for students. University officials said yesterday that there would probably still be increases in student fees, but the increase would be much smaller than originally anticipated and would most likely just cover the cost of inflation, which has typically translated to 4 percent in annual fee hikes.

"It should be enough to substantially reduce the fee increase," a University of Massachusetts official said. The money should also allow the university, which has shed about 250 positions to offset sharp cuts in state support this academic year, to avoid more layoffs, the official said.

But the official cautioned against seeing the influx as a panacea.

"It's only in this context that level-funding sounds good," the official said. "It still puts us in a precarious financial situation."

Officials at other state and community colleges not in the UMass system have said that increasing student fees was likely, but none have so far.

Dale Hamel, vice president of administration and finance at Framingham State College, said the school plans to raise fees 6.5 percent this week, or about $335 per student, as part of a four-year budget that assumes state support will eventually fall sharply once the stimulus money dries up. Without the federal money, the college would have been forced to raise fees much higher, he said.

Patrick said last week that he wanted to allocate $168 million to local school districts that would otherwise fall below state-mandated funding levels. All told, the state is expecting to receive $819 million in federal money to spend on public education over the next 27 months.

Matt Viser can be reached at Peter Schworm can be reached at

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