Senators give higher-ed a $400 million boost

02/16/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By ERIK ARVIDSON, Sun Statehouse Bureau

BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Senate yesterday voted to pump $400 million in additional aid to public colleges and universities over the next seven years.

The bill, approved unanimously by senators, would strip some of the power of setting student fees away from campus boards of trustees and give it to the state Board of Higher Education, a plan that many state college presidents oppose.

"We are the higher education capitol of the world and yet our public system has languished," said state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, one of the bill's chief architects. "We are now pricing public higher education out of the reach of working families and low-income families. It's a time when we need our younger generation to get the highest education they can get."

The legislation, which now moves to the House, commits the state to increasing funding for public higher education by $57 million each year through 2013, with about $31 million going to the state and community colleges, and $26.6 million for the University of Massachusetts.

College presidents, while pleased with the new funding commitment, are lobbying state legislators to kill the portion of the bill that gives the Board of Higher Education some authority over setting tuition and fees.

Robert Antonucci, president of Fitchburg State College, said the additional funding "puts higher education at the level that it belongs" but that state college administrators want to retain some control over the fee-setting.

"This is not a political issue. We feel as though the boards of trustees can make the decisions themselves because they know the local community," Antonucci said. "Boards of trustees in public higher education have demonstrated that they can be fiscally responsible."

He said the bill also requires colleges to set aside 5 percent of the growth in their operating budgets each year into a local stabilization fund, with the BHE having authority to approve withdrawals from the fund.

"If higher education is fully funded at these levels, I doubt there would ever be a need for additional money unless there was a highly unusual situation going on at the college. We just want to make sure there is some protection in the bill so that the colleges can continue to function," Antonucci said.

Currently, the BHE sets tuition rates at state and community colleges, while boards of trustees at the colleges control their fees.

State Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, the Senate chairman of the Higher Education Committee, said the current system is "dysfunctional" and results in fees being five times the amount of tuition. "It makes no sense and creates enormous confusion," he said.

Panagiotakos explained that in a three-year period, there was a 122 percent increase in fees at UMass, a 107 percent increase in fees at state colleges, and 72 percent increase at community colleges. All this while tuition remained flat.

The legislation would combine tuition and fees into one total charge, allow the colleges to retain the tuition and fee revenue, but cap any annual increase to the average increase in the consumer price index of the previous three years.

Colleges could appeal to the BHE to increase their tuition and fees above the CPI, but the board would have the final say.

"In consideration of this huge funding commitment to public higher education, we said, 'What can we do to make some guarantee of affordability?' " Panagiotakos said.

Meanwhile, the UMass board of trustees voted 15-3 yesterday for a 3.4 percent increase in tuition.