MOST MIDDLE-CLASS families understand the value of sacrificing for their children’s college education. But at some point, these families won’t be able to dig any deeper. The recent increases in tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts, the public university aimed at providing an affordable option for middle-class students, are pushing parents closer to that edge.
On June 1, a UMass financial committee is expected to take up a proposal to raise fees by almost $900 a year. With the end of federal stimulus funds and operating cost increases due to collective bargaining contracts, the UMass system faces a budget gap of about $54 million. UMass normally closes such gaps with equal amounts of cuts and fee increases. And when the trustees gather later in June, they will be looking to do just that.
The fees increases at UMass have come in rapid succession since 2004. The nearly $12,000 in tuition and fees for in-state students at UMass Amherst ranks 49th most expensive among 598 four-year public universities. And the price tags at the Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell campuses aren’t much easier to bear. UMass Amherst can still make the case that the annual $20,500 cost for tuition, fees, room, and board is less than half the cost of many private, four-year-colleges. But that’s cold comfort for the roughly 40 percent of UMass families paying full freight. For many of them, private college attendance was never much of an option to begin with.
A fee hike will be needed to maintain academic quality on the five-campus system. But it should not fall solely on the shoulders of middle-class families. UMass normally expects families earning above the state median of $81,000 to absorb the fee increases, while those earning less are generally held harmless or eligible for new grants. The problem with that approach is it puts ever-greater pressure on those just above the median, while maintaining affordability for families with less. A sliding scale for families earning above, say, $50,000 would be a justifiable way to dilute the impact of the fee increase. Another way to reduce pressure on the middle class would be address the gap with deeper cuts and smaller increases in fees.
The average UMass family is stretched almost to the limit, paying about $15,500 out of its own pockets to send a child to college. And that student now graduates owing about $24,000 in education debts. UMass can’t return to this well time and time again, particularly during a stumbling economy. Either the state should increase the per student subsidy or make peace with the fact that UMass is soon going to be beyond the reach of the very families it exists to serve.