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Fee hikes weigh on state students

Campuses try to offset cuts

Sam Dreyfus of Brookline says his parents have taken out a second mortgage to pay for him and his younger sister to attend UMass Amherst. Sam Dreyfus of Brookline says his parents have taken out a second mortgage to pay for him and his younger sister to attend UMass Amherst. ((Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff) )
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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Tens of thousands of students and their families will be shelling out more money next school year to attend Massachusetts public universities, colleges, and community colleges as campuses raise fees to make up for anticipated cuts in state funding.

University of Massachusetts students will be expected to pay $1,100 more in fees under a plan approved yesterday that cemented last year’s 15.8 percent increase, the largest since 2004. At state and community colleges, at least 17 out of 24 campuses are seeking fee increases of between 3 percent and 13 percent.

Fees, which make up the bulk of student costs, cover faculty salaries and other academic costs. Tuitions will remain the same for next year.

The extra burden looms large for financially struggling families who have turned to the public system in strong numbers for its lower cost.

Some students are scrambling to take on second, even third jobs. Some say they plan to graduate early to avoid another semester’s worth of tuition and fees. And still others are foregoing their public-service interests to pursue more lucrative careers and pay off college loans.

“The state is not recognizing that we’re supposed to have a school that the working class of Massachusetts can afford, and it just keeps on putting higher education further and further out of reach,’’ said Sam Dreyfus, a senior at UMass Amherst from Brookline.

Undergraduate tuition and fees for Massachusetts residents will total $11,732 a year at UMass Amherst next year. At Framingham State College, where trustees decided last month to increase next year’s fees by 8 percent, the yearly cost of attendance will be $7,065. And at Bunker Hill Community College, tuition and fees will go up 4 percent to $3,144 a year for full-time students.

The UMass Board of Trustees’ administration and finance committee voted unanimously yesterday to maintain current tuition and fee levels, but that holds true only on paper. After the five-campus system approved the 15.8 percent fee increase last spring, it used $150 million in federal stimulus money to give each student who had paid the $1,500 increase a one-time rebate of $1,100 to offset it. That money is now gone, so the increase goes into effect for the first time.

Moreover, if the expected level of state and federal funding does not materialize, the university might have to consider an additional emergency fee increase and more campus cuts, said UMass President Jack M. Wilson.

“I don’t think there was much of a prospect to lower the fees,’’ Wilson said in an interview. “I think it was a great achievement not to have an additional fee increase over that which we had established last year.’’

Governor Deval Patrick has proposed giving UMass $443 million plus an additional $49 million in federal stimulus money in the state budget for fiscal year 2011. The state Senate has proposed $439 million and the House just $419 million. UMass currently receives $379 million from the state.

The actual state appropriation will not be determined until later this month when the House and Senate send a compromise budget to the governor.

UMass tuition and fees have more than doubled over the past decade as state appropriations have plummeted by 22 percent.

“We took a bit of a risk to not ask for any fee increase given that we’re not sure where we’ll be,’’ Wilson said. “Stable funding from the state is absolutely imperative. We have to get to the point where the state sees public higher education as an investment and not an expense.’’

Although Wilson said about half of UMass students will not end up having to foot the $1,100 de facto increase because they qualify for financial aid, student leaders say many of their peers hurt most by the fee increase come from families that fall between being needy enough to receive grants and wealthy enough to pay full price.

Students from working- and middle-class families are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, said Dreyfus, a volunteer organizer with the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts. His own parents, he said, have taken out a second mortgage on their Brookline condo to pay for him and his younger sister to attend UMass Amherst.

Patrick Kenney, a UMass Amherst senior from Billerica, said he will owe about $35,000 in federal and private loans when he graduates in December.

“It’s ridiculous that if you’re middle class or just below that, you really just can’t afford to go to a state university anymore,’’ said Kenney, who had attended Middlesex Community College for two years to save money. He is taking a calculus class there this summer to graduate early while working full time.

During the school year, Kenney juggles three campus jobs, including as a resident assistant to save on housing. As a result of his full work schedule, his grade point average has dropped from 3.7 to 3.25, he said. And he is giving up his role as a student senator to rack up extra work shifts to pay for the increased fees.

“To me, it’s a huge amount of money,’’ said the 22-year-old economics major.

Most state and community colleges, too, have made or are weighing similar increases. The average state college increase will be about 8 percent next year, said Fred Clark, executive officer of the State Colleges’ Council of Presidents.

But Massachusetts state colleges still remain among the most affordable four-year schools in New England, he said. A portion of the fee increases at many state colleges will help bolster financial aid for the neediest students, Clark said.

Salem State College trustees approved a 5.6 percent fee increase last night on top of last year’s 5.9 percent increase because of a 20 percent drop in state support over the last two years, including four rounds of cuts since fall 2008, said Andrew Soll, vice president for finance and administration. Total undergraduate tuition and fees for the next academic year will be $7,230.

To help ease the pain for its students, Bunker Hill Community College, one of the least expensive higher education institutions in Massachusetts, started an emergency assistance fund last year to provide students with up to $1,000 to cover costs if students fall ill, lose their jobs, or experience other life emergencies.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

Correction: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misattributed a comment about working more to pay for state college fee increases. The remark was made by Patrick Kenney.

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