Students, faculty and staff crowded into a University of Massachusetts ballroom Wednesday morning to decry recently-approved student fee increases, which they said are akin to "digging an ever-deeper well of student debt."
"The level of student debt has gotten intolerable, particularly at a school like UMass-Boston where many students are the first in their families to go to college and come from a working-class background," Tom Goodkind, president of the Professional Staff Union at UMass-Boston, told the News Service. "The student well has run dry and the university needs to look for new, sustainable ways to fund its campuses."
In June, the UMass Board of Trustees approved a package of tuition and fee increases which called for overall tuition and mandatory fees for undergraduate students to rise by more than 5 percent, climbing 6 percent at the Boston campus and up to 7.9 percent at the Lowell campus.
"These increased costs, of course, harm the students. They can barely afford their expenses now. I have students who have no heat at their homes, I have students with no winter shoes, I have students who are hungry, I have a lot of students who are working too many hours so they can't finish that paper or do their homework or learn," Marlene Kim, Faculty Staff Union president and economics professor at UMass-Boston, said. "At a time when a college degree is as important as ever to either enter or stay in the middle class ... we're asking you to give these students a chance and keep UMass affordable."
Students, too, made their presence known at Wednesday morning's meeting. As trustees filed into the meeting, students joined union members in holding signs that read "Just imagine . . . putting students first," "Just imagine . . . full state funding," and "Just imagine . . . UMass affordable."
"I would like to leave college without being crippled in debt," UMass-Boston freshman Faith Speredelozzi said. "It would be nice to not have loans that make me stay living with my parents for the rest of my life."
UMass President Martin Meehan told the News Service the fee increases will not be rolled back this fiscal year, but said he would like to see any future increases be held below the level of inflation or the increase in the cost of living.
Goodkind suggested that the UMass Board of Trustees get behind the so-called millionaire tax -- a ballot initiative seeking to impose an additional 4 percent income tax on all earnings above $1 million, with the revenue generated dedicated to public education and transportation -- as a way to generate additional revenue, some of which could support UMass. Supporters of the measure say it would affect about 14,000 taxpayers.
"It's not a solution, but it's a start," he said. "A start at reversing the root cause of the structural funding crisis the university has faced for the last 20 years, a slow-motion crisis which simply cannot be resolved through growth, fundraising, greater efficiency, chiseling employees, or squeezing blood from the student stone."
After the meeting, board members attended a committee meeting at which the research firm Education Advisory Board gave a presentation on student debt across the nation.
"This is a very important, critical issue for everyone. This board does not take it lightly at all," board chair Victor Woolridge said. "It is one of our priorities, our top priorities for the year, to try to continue to work through a strategy and a model that can help to reduce (student debt) and hopefully working with the Legislature and executive branch to develop a model for a multi-year strategy on how to fund the university at the appropriate level to make sure all components are adequately funded and to keep the cost at an affordable level."
Meehan noted that, when factoring in inflation, the total cost of a UMass education has not changed in the last three decades, but the bulk of the cost now must be paid by students rather than by the state.
"When I was a UMass-Lowell student the state paid about 88 percent of UMass-Lowell's overall budget. Today the state pays about 24 percent of UMass-Lowell's overall budget," Meehan said. "So who pays for it has shifted from the state to students and their families."
In July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a budget that included $526.5 million for the University of Massachusetts, including his veto of $5.25 million to be consistent with his own budget recommendation. That veto was overridden by the Legislature, boosting funding to $531.8 million.
The final total was about $47 million less than what the five-campus system requested, but still a 2.5 percent, or $12.8 million, increase from last year before emergency budget cuts were made in January.