It was such a tantalizing offer made by UMass officials to the state Legislature: Give us a $26.2 million budget bump, and we won’t hike tuition for in-state students for the fifth time in as many years. Without that money, about half of which is tabbed for contracted raises, students at the state’s flagship university will have to pay more.
The proposition is double-edged offensive. On one hand, the nearly $30,000 that an in-state student pays for tuition, room and board at the University of Massachusetts will likely grow, if not this year then the next time the Legislature refuses the UMass administration’s demands. On the other, a state budget that already funds about 22 percent of the university’s overall budget is about to get hit even more. If that wasn’t enough to make you cynical, there’s the political theater of the UMass administration trying to force lawmakers to either pony up or own the heat of a tuition increase.
UMass is a source of pride for our state, as it gives students a top-notch public education at a competitive price. Compared to top public schools throughout New England, only Maine’s and Rhode Island’s state universities offer in-state students a cheaper deal.
Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to sign ever-larger checks to the bursar. Last year, tuition went up 2.5 percent for in-state undergraduates at UMass — the fourth increase in a row. There’s a certain inevitability to watching the price inch upward, and signing on for an undergraduate education at one of the UMass campuses all but guarantees you’ll have to pay a little bit extra as you go along.
We shouldn’t accept it as fact of life. Each tuition nudge represents the problem of college affordability twirling a little bit more out of control. According to State House News Service, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, an advocacy group that believes UMass students should be able to attend college without debt, said last summer’s 2.5 percent hike puts “college education out of reach for thousands more students and families, and adds even more debt onto the massive debt burden forced upon Massachusetts students and families.”
Certainly, there are cheaper, good-quality alternatives for higher education, notably at our state’s community colleges, but that shouldn’t take the pressure off UMass to keep its costs and tuition in check. The model UMass creates in higher education should extend to running a university without inflating the cost almost automatically each year.