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Report: Government choices shifting college costs to students

Sept. 7, 2019 – Fox Hall, located on UMass Lowell’s East Campus, is the tallest building in Lowell. It is home not only to students, but also to the university’s honorary River Hawks, a pair of peregrine falcons who nest on the roof each spring. (UMass Lowell courtesy photo)
Sept. 7, 2019 – Fox Hall, located on UMass Lowell’s East Campus, is the tallest building in Lowell. It is home not only to students, but also to the university’s honorary River Hawks, a pair of peregrine falcons who nest on the roof each spring. (UMass Lowell courtesy photo)

The erosion of government support for higher education over the past 20 years has made obtaining a four-year degree increasingly inaccessible to low-income students in Massachusetts, particularly students of color, as tuition and fees increases have required greater borrowing, a new report shows.

The study, published Monday by the Hildreth Institute, found that while state funding for public higher education declined 20% per full-time student between 2001 and 2020, tuition and fees at four-year institutions rose an average of 59%.

Financial aid has also failed to keep pace with rising costs being shifted onto families, falling 35% for full-time students from $595 to $386 during a time when median household earnings have climbed 13%, the report found.

“After two decades of disinvestment, we’re too far down the road to expect a few reforms will re-chart a new course for our public institutions and students. Years of inaction will force the state to finally decide the role the Commonwealth, which prides itself on being the birthplace of public education, should play in post-secondary public education,” wrote Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute and the author of the report.

The state this year budgeted nearly $1.2 billion for its higher education campuses, including $577.5 million for the University of Massachusetts, out of a $48 billion state budget. After passing a law before the pandemic reforming the way the state funds K-12 education, lawmakers are now grappling with how to make education more affordable at both the beginning and advanced stages of a student’s educational career.

State Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano have both discussed finding ways to use federal dollars and other resources to lower the cost of early education and care while Reps. Natalie Higgins and Sen. Jamie Eldridge have filed legislation to make debt-free college a reality for tens of thousands of students.

Mariano and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz were expected on Monday to announce new investments in the early education workforce that will be a part of the House’s fiscal 2023 budget due out on Wednesday.

Imboden said state policymakers should seriously consider the framework put forward by Higgins and Eldridge in their bills (H 1339. S 829) to guarantee debt-free higher education for all students, and estimated that it could cost between $771.7 million and $1.015 billion, depending on who would qualify for enhanced aid.

Public universities now rely on tuition and fees for 40% of their revenue, according to the report, which is a far different paradigm from the 1980s when student charges delivered less than a quarter of an institution’s revenue.

In the 1980s, financial aid through the MassGrant program — the state’s main form of need-based financial assistance — covered 80% of a student’s tuition and fees. It now covers 10% of a full-time student’s expenses, researchers wrote.

“With this shift and the decline in financial aid to students, the financial burden on public higher education students and their families is at an all-time high,” Imboden wrote.

The shift puts more hardship on students from low- to moderate-income backgrounds, requiring them to work more hours outside of school and take on more students loans, and putting them at greater risk of not finishing their degree.

Sixty-three percent of students at public universities now take out loans to complete their degrees, compared to 53% of their peers at private colleges, the report found, and public university students now graduate with more debt ($24,112) on average than their private school peers ($23,940).

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dire, according to the Hildreth Institute, which found that public higher education enrollment dropped 6.9% in 2020 and another 4.2% in 2021, with community colleges seeing the sharpest declines and Black and Latino first-year students dipping 33% between 2019 and 2020.

“Until we address the fact that chronic disinvestment has priced out those who stand to gain the most through higher education, we will continue to see negative enrollment trends that further disenfranchise communities most in need of investment,” the report stated.

Communities of color have a higher rate of student loan debt in default than white communities — 12% to 5%.

The Hildreth Institute concludes that state government should expand eligibility of the MASSGrant program, as well as the types of educational expenses that students can put the money toward, and boost funding to cover the unmet need of students attending public institutions so that they can graduate with little to no student debt.