Advocates aim to add over $500 million a year to Massachusetts public higher education funding

“It was one of the worst days of my life,” Mark said.

A few years later, Mark got a job at a phone company, which had a benefit that paid 85 percent of his tuition. In eight years, Mark got not only a bachelor’s degree, but a doctorate and a law degree.

“I obviously had the talent and the desire and the drive and the will, but I didn’t have the funding,” Mark said. “Without the funding, I didn’t have the opportunity.”

Now a Democratic state representative from the Berkshire County town of Peru, Mark is a prime sponsor of a bill that would require Massachusetts to add more than $500 million a year into the state budget to increase funding for higher education. Also sponsoring the bill are Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington.

The bill, named the CHERISH Act, is the first bill Comerford, a freshman senator, introduced in the Senate.

“I believe in the promise of public education, pre-k through higher education,” Comerford said. “I know that when we increase state investments in these institutions of learning that everybody wins — the students win, the faculty, the staff and our communities win.”

2014 report to the Legislature by a Higher Education Finance Commission, made up of state education experts, found that Massachusetts ranked 26th among all states in the level of funding for public higher education. It found that public funding was not keeping pace with the rise in enrollment.

In fiscal 2014 and 2015, under Gov. Deval Patrick, the state made an effort to fund 50 percent of the cost of public higher education, with the other 50 percent borne by students. But that level of funding has not kept up as the cost of education increased.

The CHERISH bill would establish in state law a minimum funding level for public higher education, which is no less than the per-student funding level in fiscal 2001, adjusted for inflation. Fiscal 2001 was the highest level of state funding the public education system has seen.

Advocates for the bill estimate that that would require the state to spend about $574 million more each year.

The bill would require public colleges and universities to freeze tuition and fees for five years, as long as the Legislature appropriates the money required to match fiscal 2001 funding levels in five years.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Massachusetts was spending $12,500 per public college student in fiscal 2001. That figure dropped by fiscal 2018 to around $8,500 per student.

Overall, the state in fiscal 2001 spent $969 million on public higher education. In fiscal 2019, it spent $1.23 billion. But adjusted for inflation, that actually represents a decrease in funding – from the equivalent of $1.4 billion to $1.23 billion, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

UMass Amherst student government president Timmy Sullivan said at a press conference releasing the bill that disinvestment in public higher education “betrays the promise and the charge of public education” and “embeds structural inequities into what should be our great equalizer.”

Sullivan called it a “crisis” students have to drop out because they cannot afford to attend public college. In fiscal 2019, tuition and mandatory fees at UMass cost, on average, $15,100. At state universities, the average tuition and fees were around $10,500. For community colleges, the average tuition and fees were $6,000.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center has found that the average student debt for a student leaving a four-year public college is $30,000.

Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernandez said increased funding is important not only for students, but for the Massachusetts economy. UMass has said 80 percent of its graduates remain in Massachusetts. These young adults need to have the money to open their own businesses, patronize businesses, or live in the state.

“This bill is really important for the students whose lives it’s going to change, but also for our economy’s ability to stay competitive, for us to continue to retain young people,” Salomon-Fernandez said. “This is not just about debt burden, this is an investment in our own economy.”

Fund Our Future, a coalition of students, teachers, parents and community education leaders, is pushing the CHERISH Act as a companion bill to a separate bill that would increase the amount of money the state spends on K-12 education.

The K-12 bill has gotten more attention from state legislative leaders and advocates than the higher education bill, with the House speaker, Senate president and Gov. Charlie Baker all pledging to examine the state’s education funding formula this year.

Shira Schoenberg, MassLive , January 16, 2019

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