At UMass, top rung remains out of reach

Hampered by years of cuts, Amherst campus struggles to draw ranking Bay State students

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 5, 2010

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First in a series of occasional articles examining challenges facing the University of Massachusetts.

In went the pink bath towels, the extra-long sheet sets, and the plastic shower caddy. Maggie Davis, a Wayland High School graduate, and her mother stuffed the cardboard boxes to the brim on a steaming Saturday morning in August — six cartons bound for the University of Michigan, 800 miles away.

The University of Massachusetts, about two hours down the road from home, was never on her screen.

For the Davises, and thousands of other Bay State families choosing colleges each year, UMass Amherst, the academic flagship of the state system, is simply not good enough. The 4.0 student — the kind of candidate the state university covets — didn’t even bother to apply.

Instead, the Davises opted to shell out more than twice what it would cost to attend UMass for what they view as a superior education at a leading public institution in another state.

“Look, we would love to pay less, but you just have to make that investment,’’ said George Davis, Maggie’s father. “Michigan, California, North Carolina, Virginia — they are killer state systems. Massachusetts is just not thought of as in the same class.’’

The students aren’t just fleeing to the elite flagships. They are flocking next door to Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire — all of which have seen interest from Massachusetts students soar in the past decade. It is a kind of referendum on public higher education here, and the results aren’t flattering.

At UConn, the number of undergraduates from Massachusetts has risen 70 percent during that time to more than 1,100, while the number of Connecticut students enrolled at UMass Amherst dropped by 5.5 percent to around 600.

Similarly, enrollment by Massachusetts students jumped 60 percent at the University of New Hampshire, and 50 percent at the University of Vermont.

Despite improvement efforts that date back generations, UMass Amherst remains firmly lodged among the nation’s second-tier state schools, depleted by years of budget cuts. The average SAT scores of incoming students, freshman retention rates, and graduation rates lag behind those of its peers. The number of tenured faculty has plummeted. And the school’s endowment is one of the lowest in the country for a public flagship school.

The predicament is infuriating, even embarrassing, for a state known as the birthplace of higher education in America and home to some of the world’s best private colleges, say many students and their parents. More important, some state leaders say, it could be devastating to the state economy if Massachusetts continues to lose its home-grown talent to other states — especially as more families are looking for affordable alternatives to private colleges.

Robert Holub, appointed UMass Amherst chancellor two years ago, is well aware of the challenges he faces and has laid out a set of ambitious goals to help UMass become the public Ivy it aspires to be — among them, boosting the size and prestige of the faculty, generating more cutting-edge research, updating aging facilities, and tapping largely disengaged alumni to help build the school’s modest endowment.

“It can be better, and we’re going to make it better,’’ vowed Holub, who spent 27 years at the University of California Berkeley, one of the nation’s premier public universities. “We are the state’s flagship, but we have to assume that role and do things that are going to let people know that they are going to get an excellent education and all the benefits that come along with the public research institution that we have.’’

The safety school
One key measure of success will be the university’s ability to attract and retain the likes of Maggie Davis. While UMass has gotten more selective in recent years — with 67 percent of applicants gaining admission compared to 80 percent five years ago — many of the state’s best and brightest are voting with their feet.

For those students, UMass Amherst is seen as a safety school — a college you apply to as a backup in case you aren’t admitted to your dream school or can’t afford your top choice. Only 22 percent of students who are admitted end up enrolling, down from 31 percent a decade ago. The so-called yield at more popular schools like the Virginia and North Carolina flagships surpasses 50 percent.

“I wanted to go to a school with the best name, the best national recognition to get the best job,’’ said Davis, who is considering majoring in international business or communications at Michigan, which will cost her parents $45,200 a year for tuition, room, and board, compared with $20,500 they would pay at UMass. “People work really hard in high school, and they just want something to show for it.’’

Many Massachusetts students say they are unable to overlook the Amherst flagship’s deteriorating concrete buildings, a problem the university has recently begun to address by building a state-of-the-art science center and planning for two more. Yet, even with the new buildings, applicants say the campus pales next to the fancy dorms and classrooms offered by UConn and other state schools.

Many students who look out of state also say they are drawn to the school spirit that pervades public campuses like Michigan, Wisconsin, UConn, and UNC — universities with winning athletic programs that attract national attention and name recognition. The UMass football team competes out of the limelight in the Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision.

“It’s a lot more fun to cheer when you have 70,000 other people cheering with you,’’ said Matt Elkin, a Boston Latin School graduate who chose the University of Wisconsin over UMass in part because of the campus pride generated by the Badgers’ football, basketball, and hockey teams.

UMass leaders acknowledge the reality that sub-par athletic programs and facilities hinder its ability to draw certain groups of students.

“You have to be able to step back and look at yourself the way others see you from outside,’’ said UMass president Jack Wilson.

Even some who end up enrolling at UMass feel, at least initially, as though they are settling for less. Joshua Zuber was accepted to his first pick, Boston College, but is entering UMass this fall because it is the best his family could afford.

“UMass has that party reputation. It wasn’t something I was looking to be around,’’ said Zuber, who graduated from Dartmouth High with a 4.0 average. “I felt like I could go to a really good school for how hard I worked. It was more of a pride thing.’’

After attending orientation this summer, however, Zuber, an aspiring medical scientist, said he looks forward to studying biochemistry there. He was admitted to the university’s honors college, which offers 3,100 high-achieving students the opportunity to conduct research, learn in small interdisciplinary seminars, and live together.

Campus in crisis
UMass’s challenges, though, run deeper than its reputation problem among many prospective students. It is a campus in crisis, professors say.

The Amherst campus has lost nearly a fifth of its tenure-track faculty over the past two decades as a result of the state’s financial woes, leaving only 972 permanent faculty on a campus of 20,000 undergraduates. In comparison, the 17,000-student UConn employs 1,286 tenure-track professors.

UMass’s English department, once 100 strong, has dwindled to 43 professors.

“It’s been difficult, very difficult,’’ said Joseph Bartolomeo, the English department chairman. “We struggle to get back to an earlier level and then there’s another cut. That is very demoralizing for the faculty.’’

The precipitous decline in faculty size makes it harder for UMass Amherst to climb into the top ranks of research universities, Holub said. The prestigious Association of American Universities, a 110-year-old invitation-only organization of 63 research universities that UMass aspires to join, takes into consideration faculty awards and other external recognition, as well as quality of research and graduate programs — all of which are hard to achieve without a robust faculty.

In the past five years, Massachusetts has cut public higher-education appropriations per student by more than 13 percent, while nationally state support per student grew by an average of 4 percent, according a report by State Higher Education Executive Officers. Only four other states — Rhode Island, South Dakota, New Jersey, and Vermont — cut more higher-education funding per student.

“This state historically has not invested as well in public higher education as other states,’’ said Wilson, who is leaving the post in June after eight years. “It hasn’t invested as much financially, or even in terms of boosting the visibility and prominence of the state system, like Texas and California have.’’

The state has budgeted $465 million — including $40 million in one-time federal stimulus money — for the UMass system, less than it spent 10 years ago. State funding makes up 25 percent of UMass Amherst’s revenues, compared with 40 percent in 2000.

The cuts have driven UMass officials to raise tuition and fees to among the highest in the country for public universities.

If the state does not clearly signal the importance of public higher education, UMass will have a difficult time drawing a national figure to lead the five-campus system, say many faculty and higher-education experts.

Trailing numbers
For decades, UMass has aspired to bolster its standing. But campus data, while showing some real gains, mainly underscore how far there is to go.

While average SAT scores of incoming freshmen have increased 32 points in five years to 1,169, UMass lags behind the group of schools it measures itself against, such as UConn, Iowa State, and the University of Nebraska. Only half of UMass Amherst students graduate in four years, compared with 68 percent at UConn and 73 percent at the University of Michigan.

It also trails on other measures, including the number of advanced degrees awarded and research spending, according to an internal university report on how UMass stacks up.

Among the most worrisome statistics, Holub said, is that the number of doctorates awarded has fallen by 30 percent over the past two decades while peer colleges have ramped up the number of PhDs they produce.

Above all, UMass, more than its peers, has been plagued by dismal financial health, both in terms of state resources and private fund-raising. The Amherst campus endowment — at $6,929 per student, compared to a peer average of $11,137 — falls near the bottom among the nation’s public universities. Its total endowment stands at $181 million, compared to $6 billion at the University of Michigan.

Massachusetts’ numerous private colleges and universities have long overshadowed the public system, which, in addition to the UMass campuses, includes nine state universities and 15 community colleges.

A state commission called for creating a world-class public university system in 1989, saying that Massachusetts’ 80-plus private colleges and universities would be unable to serve the state’s future economic needs and were not doing enough to educate low-income and minority students. But the commission acknowledged that doing so was a “radical notion’’ for the state.

Even then-Governor Michael Dukakis brushed aside any expectation that UMass should grow to compete with Harvard and MIT, a sentiment that prevails in some corners today.

“We aren’t California, we’re not Texas, and we’re not Michigan,’’ Dukakis told a Globe reporter in 1986. “We do happen to have some of the finest academic institutions in the world. And I don’t think it makes sense for us to try to duplicate that.’’

Dukakis, now a political science professor at Northeastern University, stood by those comments in a recent interview. But he stressed that he supports investing in a strong public flagship, citing the need for an institution that is both academically strong and relatively affordable.

Taking steps
Chancellor after chancellor has tried to move UMass up the ranks.

Not only does Holub want to reverse the migration of Massachusetts students to other state universities, he wants to enroll more out-of-state students, with their higher tuition rates, to help boost the university’s coffers.

Over the past year, UMass has managed to attract more than 350 additional out-of-state freshmen through aggressive recruiting, scholarships for high-achievers, and help from consultants. The new students, mostly from New York and New Jersey, are expected to bring in at least $4 million this school year.

To persuade those admitted to attend, Holub asked faculty to call nonresident students and make the pitch for UMass. The most successful academic departments would be rewarded with some of the extra tuition dollars these students bring.

Holub has personally reached out to students by writing letters to scholarship winners.

“Instead of just saying, ‘You have a $6,000 scholarship as part of your financial aid package,’ we said, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been awarded a Chancellor’s Scholarship for $6,000, and you get a certificate to hang on your wall,’ ’’ he said. “That’s kind of a marketing tool.’’

He is intent on shedding UMass’s reputation as a party school and recently launched a branding campaign using the university website to tout its “brainiac’’ students, spotlight star faculty, and show the world that UMass is “smart.’’

Holub plans to pump more resources into the university’s popular honors college over the next five years by hiring 50 tenure-track professors.

Boosting the endowment will also be a priority to replenish the ranks of tenure-track professors to the 1987 high of 1,200, he said, and pay for additional scholarships and more competitive faculty salaries.

“We certainly can’t look to the state, especially in the next couple of years, to fund us at increased levels,’’ Holub said.

The university opened a Boston office in August to enhance its profile with legislators, connect with local alumni, and spearhead fund-raising as UMass prepares to launch a major capital campaign.

The efforts come too late, though, for students like Maggie Davis.

In the teenager’s bedroom, her mother helped the 18-year-old tape together another cardboard box as they packed away her high school memorabilia. Davis showed off her season football tickets that had just arrived in the mail from the University of Michigan, which has seen a 45 percent increase in Massachusetts applicants over the last decade.

Despite her excitement, Davis laments having to move so far away from home to get a top-tier education. “But it’s worth going all that way for a better school.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at