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Strapped colleges resort to fee hikes

Mass. students feeling brunt

By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2011

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With costs rising, enrollments ballooning, and federal funds drying up, many of Massachusetts’ community colleges and state universities are turning to what they say is their only option for making ends meet: student fees.

Like the University of Massachusetts, nine of the state’s 15 community colleges and seven of its nine state universities have approved higher fees for undergraduates next year, ranging from $150 and $700 extra.

While fees rise every year due to escalating costs, these public institutions are losing millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds next year, forcing them to adopt heftier increases than usual. And Massachusetts educational administrators warn that relatively large rises in student fees may become standard over the next several years.

“To be honest, we’re anticipating this is the new normal, though I hate to say that,’’ said Michael Gross, Cape Cod Community College spokesman, who has worked there for 16 years. “There’s just no way that we can operate any other way.’’

Gross said Cape Cod, based in West Barnstable, will raise its fees from $127 per credit hour to $137 per credit hour to help make up a budget shortfall of about $1.3 million, including nearly $500,000 in lost federal funds. Like other colleges and universities, Cape Cod is also dipping into rainy-day funds and continuing to cut costs.

In addition to the loss of federal funding, many state public institutions are facing old buildings in need of renovation, too few classrooms and labs, and rapidly increasing enrollment.

Although colleges and universities have cut back on everything from staff to printing paper over the past few years, many must keep the faculty the same size or even hire more instructors to meet student demand, officials said.

The fees, then, are likely to keep rising.

‘It’s unfortunately becoming a pattern and unless something dramatic happens, I think we will continue to move closer and closer to being virtually privatized,’’ said Michael Shanley, Fitchburg State University spokesman. “It certainly is a disturbing trend.’’

The 13.5 percent fee increase that Bristol Community College in Fall Riv er will charge students next year — nearly five times the current New England inflation rate of 2.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — came about through what spokeswoman Sally Cameron called a “perfect storm’’ of events.

Last year, Bristol announced that it would not raise fees at all in a bid to keep classes affordable during the recession. The news was greeted with fanfare: Governor Deval Patrick even came down for the announcement.

But this year, the federal stimulus money that once enabled Bristol to forgo a fee increase is gone.

Meanwhile, enrollment has surged 71 percent over the past 10 years, propelling it from the eighth-largest community college in the state to the third and requiring the college to hire 10 new faculty members, Cameron said.

The fee increases, approved by individual institutions’ boards of trustees over the past three months, come as the state’s flagship UMass system announced that student fees at its four undergraduate campuses may grow by an average of $826. UMass trustees are set to vote on the increase next week amid protests that students cannot afford the added cost.

Although fees are growing by smaller amounts at community colleges and state universities — rising an average of about $385 at the nine community colleges and $492 at the seven state universities — officials said they recognized that the many students who already work or take out loans to pay for their credits would take a hit next year.

“For some students, even an $8 increase is going to be a challenge,’’ said William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College. Holyoke has raised fees by $8 three years in a row to offset diminishing state funding.

“It’s no secret the areas we serve are among the poorest in the state, which is one of the primary reasons we’ve kept the fees as low as they are,’’ Messner said.

That is also why officials at some of the institutions imposing higher fees, such as Fitchburg State and Framingham State University, plan to channel a portion of the revenue into bigger financial aid budgets. But that may not help some students.

“It causes more stress on us by making us pay what we already don’t have,’’ said Anthony Pires Jr.,, 21, who will be a junior at Framingham State in the fall. “It’s already hard enough.’’

But school officials say they have no other options short of cutting essential services.

“It’s finding that balance point between affordability and not providing a good service,’’ said Andrew Soll, vice president of finance and facilities at Salem State University, whose trustees approved a 6.9 percent fee increase on March 23 after the university learned it would lose $2.9 million in federal funds next year.

“We do know it’s a challenge for the students. It’s a challenge for us as well.’’

The rest of the state’s public institutions will settle on next year’s fees by the end of June, when the final state budget is due.