Keeping UMass Affordable

02/12/2009
By From the Boston Globe

By Jack M. Wilson

Students and families in Massachusetts are anxious about the cost and availability of higher education. These concerns will only intensify in the coming months, as acceptance letters land in thousands of mailboxes and families grapple with decisions that will shape a young person's life and will also have a major impact on household finances.

Affordability is now the critical question for many students and families making decisions about college. Discussions that just last year might have centered on where to attend are now just as likely to be conversations about whether it is even possible to attend.

Interest in a University of Massachusetts education is at an all-time high and applications for enrollment are up at every campus. When families see that they can have access to a world-class education for only $20,000 for tuition, fees, and room and board, they are interested. When they realize that over half of UMass students receive financial aid and pay far less than that, they are impressed.

Still, there is a lot of worry. Families are not sure how much aid they will receive. They worry that students might be saddled with large loans. They also know that UMass is facing a significant decrease in state funding.

A major funding reduction could jeopardize access and affordability, but fortunately a decision made six years ago to increase the university's commitment to financial aid puts it in a position to respond aggressively to this challenge. In 2003, the university's direct spending on financial aid was $36.5 million. Thanks to the dedication and commitment of UMass chancellors, spending has increased by 165 percent to $94.2 million.

UMass is now poised to meet 100 percent of tuition and mandatory fees with grants and scholarships - after the expected family contribution required under federal guidelines - for students from families with annual incomes up to $78,500. UMass wants families to recognize that high-quality higher education may be more affordable than they imagined.

For example, a family with an annual income of under $30,000 pays only $1,704 on average for tuition, fees, and room and board at UMass-Amherst this year. For families with incomes up to $50,000, it is $3,982, and families earning up to $75,000 pay an average of $7,787. Even families with no federally determined need pay $20,000 for tuition, fees, and room and board, and many of those students receive non-need-based aid. When parents compare that to the alternatives, they see a world-class education at an affordable price.

To help close a projected $102 million budget gap for the upcoming year and to provide additional financial aid, UMass is proposing to increase the total student fees by $1,500. While some object to any fee increase, it would be irresponsible to simply cut $102 million from the current budget, as that would compromise quality. Cutting $102 million from the budget would require extensive layoffs of faculty and staff, and would mean that student enrollment would have to decrease. It would be equally irresponsible to make up for the loss of $102 million simply on the revenue side, as that would require a $3,100 fee increase that would unduly burden students and families.

The UMass approach is to address the shortfall half through spending reductions and half through an increase in fees. This is a responsible, balanced, pragmatic path, one that - taken in tandem with the new commitment on financial aid - will allow the university to protect the twin pillars of quality and affordability.

In so many homes and at so many dinner tables right now, the question is: Is a college education, the undeniable ticket to the America Dream, still within our reach?

The University of Massachusetts is dedicated to ensuring that answer remains a definitive yes.

Jack M. Wilson is president of the University of Massachusetts.