A recent story in The New Bedford Light pointed to several factors that are leading to declining enrollment at local public colleges, including shifting demographics, rising housing costs, and a strong job market for high school graduates. As president of the UMass Dartmouth Faculty Federation, I’ve witnessed another cause of this disturbing trend: rising tuition rates that are pricing middle-class Massachusetts students out of public college. And new research released this month confirms it.
A new report from the Hildreth Institute, a local higher education policy think tank, found that tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities have increased at one of the fastest rates in the nation, drastically exceeding the increase in family incomes. Since 2000, median family income in Massachusetts has risen only 13%, but even after adjusting for inflation, tuition and fees at UMass Dartmouth have increased by 57% — a $6,205 price hike. That’s the second-largest hike in the UMass system (behind UMass Lowell at 59.6%).
These drastic tuition increases aren’t just happening in the UMass system. At Bristol Community College, tuition and fees have increased by 52% since 2000. At Bridgewater State, they’ve increased by 59%. Earning a degree from a state college — which was once heralded as a pathway of opportunity — has become completely unfeasible for most middle-class families and students across Massachusetts.
Why have the costs for students at our public colleges risen so much? The Hildreth Institute report spells out in alarming detail how, over the past two decades, Massachusetts has systematically disinvested from the futures of low- to middle-income families through chronic underfunding of the state’s public higher education system. Between 2000 and 2020, state funding for public higher education has, after adjusting for inflation, fallen 20 percent — from $10,907 per full-time student to $8,728. Forty percent of the total revenue of our four-year public universities now comes from tuition and fees because they are unable to rely on adequate state funding.
The MASSGrant, the state’s main need-based grant, used to cover 80 percent of a student’s tuition and fees at a state school. Now, those grants for students most in need of financial assistance cover only 10 percent.
Faculty see the results on our campuses and in our classrooms. Enrollment is down. Students and families are being told that in order to attend a state school, they’ll need to take out burdensome loans because even the maximum amount of state aid will cover only a fraction of their costs. In Bristol County, 18.44% of households now have student debt, and the median amount of that debt is $17,115.
And the problem continues to get worse. Just this month, the UMass Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition and fees by an average of 2.5 percent for the 2022-2023 school year. The cost of annual tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduates at UMass Dartmouth will increase to $14,854.
If we’re serious about supporting and lifting up families across the state and serious about ensuring that we prepare the youth of Massachusetts to contribute to the future economy of the commonwealth — breaking down the barriers to public higher education is a critical first step.
Thankfully, voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on a critical part of the solution this November, by voting “yes” on the Fair Share Amendment, the proposed state tax on annual incomes above $1 million, which will appear on the statewide general election ballot. The Fair Share Amendment would generate more than $1 billion every year for spending on transportation and public education, including making public college more affordable.
With this ballot question, we can reverse decades of underfunding and start making our public colleges affordable again. In the face of declining enrollment at our public colleges, we need to act urgently to remove the barriers that are preventing working and middle-class students from pursuing a degree at our public colleges.
Grant O’Rielly, PhD, is an associate professor of physics at UMass Dartmouth and president of the UMass Dartmouth Faculty Federation.