Governor to announce stimulus help at UMass visit

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, State House News Service
Mar. 23, 2009

UMass undergraduates, bracing for an expected $1,500 fee increase, appear in line for some relief thanks to federal stimulus funds aimed toward the coffers of the state's public higher education system. Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to announce the restoration of funds cut from the higher education on Tuesday at UMass-Boston, according to Education Secretary Paul Reville. A press conference has been scheduled at the university's Campus Center.

At an oversight hearing held by the Joint Committee on Higher Education, Reville told lawmakers a dollar figure on how much public colleges and universities would receive was still being finalized.

Reville said a "substantial" portion of the student fee increases could be negated.

"I think we're going to have some good news, in short," Reville said.

The federal law governing stimulus funds also provides an additional $363 million in Pell Grant funding for low-income students, on top of the $257 million that Massachusetts students already receive annually, he said.

Work-study programs will also receive an additional $9 million over the next two years to the current $45 million the Bay State receives. The federal stimulus also includes a new tax-exempt bond program and will provide $185 million in new bonding authority for capital projects.

Reville added that Patrick administration officials were also developing a "higher education relief bill," which he hoped to bring before the committee in the "coming weeks." The bill will include several "common-sense, no-cost proposals" suggested by college presidents, he said.

Proposals will include eliminating "burdensome and duplicative" reporting requirements in state law and giving campuses flexibility to manage small construction and repair projects on their own, rather going through the state Division of Capital Asset Management, Reville said.

The bill will also include a proposal colleges have long lobbied for: allowing campuses to keep tuition revenues on campus for reinvestment. Currently, public colleges and universities set tuition and fee rates, but send tuition revenue to the state and keep the money generated by fees.

After Patrick proposed over $100 million in cuts - the second-largest, single year loss of state funding in the university's history, UMass officials say - members of the UMass Board of Trustees voted to raise average fees to $11,048 from $9,548 per student.

The increase amounted to a 15 percent surge and represented a departure from the university's five-year practice of keeping fee increases at or below the rate of inflation.

The fee increase comes as applications are up at public colleges, including 29 percent at UMass-Amherst, 40 percent at Framingham State College and 25 percent at Roxbury Community College. The fee increases mean "extra hours students will now spend working, rather than studying," and cause students to finish college later in their lives, Reville said.

Reville, a member of the board, said trustees "agonized" over the increase and included a provision allowing for a rebate if federal stimulus funds came through and setting aside $20 million from the fee increase for financial aid.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Wrentham) noted that line items in the state budget for the UMass system have steadily increased since 2004, demonstrating a "substantial commitment" from the Legislature. He warned that the stimulus funds are a "temporary Band-Aid."

Brown said he received a "barrage" of messages from constituents about the fees, and expressed concern about "top heavy" administrative salaries and bonuses. Thirty-nine administrators are making over $200,000, he said.

Reville said Patrick frequently tells his cabinet officials that the stimulus funds aren't a "panacea" and will "dry up" in 27 months. "The watchword is restraint," Reville said.

The university system has eliminated or left vacant some 250 positions and asked for furloughs of employees, according to UMass President Jack Wilson.

It was unclear whether any stimulus funds would prevent further layoffs, according to UMass officials.

Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland defended the salaries, saying faculty and university administrators are receiving salaries "below competitive levels." Universities and colleges should focus on cost-sharing, said Freeland.

"In my view, to be honest, I think I wouldn't start with the salaries of already not-competitively compensated faculty and leadership," he said.