Hike puts UMass tuition near $30k amid words of caution

University of Massachusetts trustees last Friday approved a 2.5 percent tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students, as members of the board cautioned of “clouds on the horizon” in enrollment and revenue trends.

The vote, held about a month before the start of fall classes, was postponed this year as UMass officials waited to see how the late state budget would handle their $558 million appropriation and the tuition rates paid by nearly 50,000 undergraduates.

Senate-backed language calling for a tuition freeze this fall, which the school said would lead to cuts affecting students, was dropped in favor of a new requirement that university officials meet with lawmakers to discuss financial and enrollment information.

With room, board, and mandatory fees factored in, the average increase for an in-state undergraduate student across the Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell campuses works out to $887, for a total cost of $29,058.

Five years ago, when trustees approved the second year of a two-year tuition freeze, the cost of attending the flagship UMass campus in Amherst was $24,215. This fall, that cost will be $29,393, an increase of over $5,000.

UMass President Marty Meehan said tuition increases at UMass have averaged 3 percent over the past 10 years, while state universities and community colleges have hiked their rates by an average of 6 percent.

Meehan said UMass will form an advisory group with the goal of working “with the governor and the Legislature to keep tuition flat or below the rate of inflation next year.” He said the group will focus on issues of access, affordability, quality and efficiency.

In a press release from the Hildreth Institute, a nonprofit focused on college affordability, UMass Amherst student Madison Billingsley called the tuition increase “really frustrating. Especially for a state school, the price for in-state tuition is simply not acceptable, or attainable for most students,” Billingsley said. “The university should really reassess what they are prioritizing for the school, and how much of the spending results in a higher financial burden for students.”

Education Secretary James Peyser said UMass remains a “tremendous value,” though students are still coming out with “significant debt” in many cases and some struggle to pay for their education.

For graduate students, the Amherst, Boston and Dartmouth campuses will each raise their rates 3 percent, while Lowell is holding its tuition flat at $14,590 for Massachusetts residents and $26,370 for those from out-of-state.

The Lowell campus is increasing its out-of-state undergraduate tuition by 2 percent, while Amherst, Boston and Dartmouth out-of-state undergrads will pay an extra 3 percent this year. The Amherst and Boston campuses are also raising their student activities fees.

At UMass Boston, the $40 increase from $76 to $116 will be used to lower students’ costs for T passes, bringing what’s now an 11 percent discount to a 50 percent discount. Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman said students approved the “self-tax” via a referendum, which she called “quite remarkable.”

“About half of our students commute on the T. It’s a significant expense for them,” Newman said. “If there’s one thing in the world I could move, it would be the cost of their commute, because it’s really quite extraordinary.”

UMass is projecting a slight enrollment increase of 0.7 percent in the coming school year, to 65,816 full-time equivalent students across the five campuses. That figure reflects 1.3 percent growth in in-state students, who account for 76 percent of the student body, and a 1.2 percent decline the out-of-state student population.

In total, UMass enrollment is projected to grow by 468 students in fiscal 2020, including 275 at Amherst, 261 at Lowell and 50 at the medical school, and declines of 79 students at Boston and 39 students at Dartmouth.

Newman said enrollment has become “much more volatile,” making it more difficult to make forecasts based on history and indicators like the number of applications completed.

She said the Boston campus has planned “some significant belt-tightening” as it grapples with a combination of enrollment fluctuations and higher depreciation and interest costs associated with ongoing projects.

A voluntary separation incentive program is under way, and Newman said she expects to know the full results of that program in a few weeks and the school will “probably have to do layoffs” if the desired reductions aren’t reached.

Trustee Robert Epstein urged the chancellors to look at cost centers they haven’t previously addressed, saying the 1 percent margin in the university system’s budget left “no room for oops.”

“The Legislature was kind this year in comparison to what will happen if we don’t come up with zero tuition growth for next year,” he said.