Patrick channels stimulus to stanch UMass fee hikes

By 
Gintautas Dumcius Reporter Correspondent
Mar. 26, 2009

Undergraduates at UMass-Boston and other public college campuses won’t be getting as big a fee hike as expected in their bills come later this year.

Originally set at a $1,500 spike, students could see a hike as small $300, due to $162 million in federal stimulus funds that Gov. Deval Patrick is directing to the state’s public colleges and universities in a bid to stall fee hikes and prevent cuts in faculty and programs.

After Patrick proposed in January 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.

With stimulus dollars flowing the Bay State’s way, the five-campus UMass system will see $81.6 million, with the community and state colleges receiving $40.3 million and $36.7 million, respectively.
“Thanks to those funds, we can soften the blow,” Patrick said in a Tuesday announcement at UMass-Boston.
The announcement drew a cheer from the hundreds of students, staff and faculty who crowded the terrace in the university’s Campus Center to hear Patrick speak. Patrick, beset by low approval ratings amid outrage over patronage hires at Beacon Hill, has hit the road for announcements on where federal stimulus funds are going.
Last week he announced $168 million in federal stimulus money will go to 166 school districts to avoid program cuts and teacher layoffs, and $280 million will be set aside for every state school district to support special education services.
But others noted that reducing the fee increases also depends on the House and Senate, both still at work on their versions of the budget. If either branch of government makes deeper cuts than what Patrick had proposed to higher education accounts, and the state budget passes in July with those cuts, students from UMass and other public colleges could still see a substantial increase in their bills.
“It’s not a done deal,” said Alex Kulenovic, a UMass-Boston graduate who serves as an elected representative to the UMass Board of Trustees.
“It’s definitely extremely encouraging,” he said of the stimulus funds.
The February fee increase came 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.
When UMass trustees approved the fee increase, they 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.
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.
At a Monday oversight hearing on Beacon Hill, Education Secretary Paul Reville told lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Higher Education 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.

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 $240,000 a year, 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.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.