By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — The University of Massachusetts, with its five campuses and nearly 73,000 undergraduate and graduate students, struck a defiant tone Thursday as it faced mounting political pressure to reconsider tuition and fee hikes approved earlier this summer.
The Senate’s top Democrat on Thursday morning released a letter sent earlier this month to new UMass President Martin Meehan requesting that the university’s trustees revisit a decision earlier this year to increase tuition and fees on students by roughly 5 percent, on average, for the academic year starting in September.
By late afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker had joined the cause suggesting that because the tuition and fee expenses for students had been debated by university trustees before he signed the fiscal 2016 budget that the decision should be reconsidered.
The university responded by challenging Legislative leaders to back additional funding increases this fall for the five campuses, as well as state support for collective bargaining contracts, as a path toward a full rebate for students of the tuition and fee hikes.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who counts the UMass Amherst campus within his district, said he has talked to students working two or three part-time jobs to “scrape together enough money” to cover their expenses.
“For them, $900 could put their future at the university in jeopardy. I hope that by working together, we can find a way to help these students,” Rosenberg wrote to Meehan in a letter dated Aug. 13.
In response, UMass Vice President for Communications Robert Connolly said “sufficient funding” from the state could prompt the university to issue rebates.
“Senate President Rosenberg suggests paring back this year’s fee increase but UMass could eliminate it entirely if he could win full funding for our budget and collective-bargaining requirements,” Connolly said in a statement. “The supplemental budget process provides the perfect opportunity for taking what would be a significant and much-appreciated step. This action could ease the burden on students and their families immeasurably.”
Baker in July signed a budget that included $526.5 million for the University of Massachusetts, including his veto of $5.25 million to be consistent with his own budget recommended. That veto was ultimately overridden by the Legislature, boosting funding to $531.8 million. The final total was about $47 million less than what the five-campus system had requested, but still a 4 percent, or $20.6 million, increase from last year after emergency budget cuts were made in January.
Meehan has also requested additional funding from the Legislature to cover collective bargaining contracts. Rosenberg acknowledged the request in his letter, and said he would “make it a priority to address the University’s continuing funding needs.”
Baker, responding to an inquiry from the News Service, released a statement supporting Rosenberg’s efforts.
“The Governor agrees with the Senate President that every effort should be made to ensure the affordability of our public colleges for working students and families. Since tuition and fees for the fall were established before the state budget was approved, he urges UMASS leadership to revisit their tuition increases since their funding was significantly increased to provide students with some relief,” press secretary Lizzy Guyton said.
Now at the University of Maryland, Robert Caret was still president of UMass at the time of the vote to increase tuition and fees.
Meehan, who took over as president in July after leading the UMass Lowell campus, came to the State House on July 27 where he met with House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka to urge an override of $5.2 million in funding for the UMass system vetoed by Baker.
He also talked with the legislative leaders about securing nearly $11 million in additional funding to pay for collective bargaining contracts with professors and staff, which could be considered next month when the Legislature considers a supplemental budget bill filed by Baker.
Though the Legislature ultimately restored the vetoed spending to the budget for UMass, the total appropriation still fell short of the $578 million in fiscal 2016 that university officials had requested as necessary to freeze tuition and fees paid by in-state students and their families for a third consecutive year.
After initially declining to comment on Rosenberg’s letter, House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office issued a statement after Baker’s office responded.
DeLeo stopped short of urging trustees to revisit the tuition hikes, as the other two Beacon Hill leaders had.
“I continue to be proud of our investments in UMass, and in particular, the House’s leadership in achieving funding levels that enabled UMass to freeze tuition and fees the past two years. While no one likes to see tuition increase, I am confident President Meehan will continue to put the interests and concerns of UMass students first. I know he will do all he can to help make college more affordable and look forward to working with him to ensure UMass’s continued success,” DeLeo said in his statement.
With students preparing now to return to school, Rosenberg did not put a timetable on his request for tuition and fee hikes to be reduced, though university leaders have previously suggested any change would probably require rebates being offered in the spring.
“Whether this fall or next spring, I hope that the trustees will revisit the proposed student charges and provide some relief in light of the increase provided,” Rosenberg wrote, referring to the university’s budget appropriation.
The Board of Trustees, chaired by Victor Woolridge, meets next on Sept. 16. Woolridge was appointed to the board in 2009 by former Gov. Deval Patrick, but was elevated to chairman in January by Baker.
The total package of tuition and fee increases approved by the board in June called for overall tuition and mandatory fees to rise by more than 5 percent, climbing up to 6 percent at the Boston campus and up to 7.9 percent at the Lowell campus. Twenty percent of the revenue from the mandatory curriculum fees will be funneled toward student financial aid, officials said.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser, who sits on the board in his official capacity, voted against the tuition and fee increases along with three other trustees, including two student representatives.
According to the university, the total tuition and student fees without room and board for in-state undergraduates in fiscal year 2016 could rise to $14,171 from $13,258 at UMass Amherst and to $12,682 from $11,966 at UMass Boston. At UMass Dartmouth, the total cost would come to $12,588, an increase from $11,681, and $13,427 at UMass Lowell, up from $12,447.
While the Legislature fell short this year of providing enough state funding to achieve the 50-50 funding split with the university that enabled UMass to freeze student costs the previous two years, lawmakers did approve a long-fought-for change to the way tuition is collected and dispersed.
Starting this year, each campus will be able to retain the tuition collected from students for their budgets rather than ceding that money to the state to be allocated by the Legislature.
Rosenberg was a chief proponent of tuition retention.