By Grant Welker
on December 13, 2022
On Tuesday, the state Board of Higher Education is set to recommend doubling financial aid to students at Massachusetts public colleges, bringing the total of such funding to $400 million.
The board will also consider a significant overhaul of how the state’s public campuses — its community colleges, state universities and UMass campuses — are funded. The new proposal would factor in a campus’s number of low-income Pell grant recipients.
The increased aid would be made possible thanks to the passage of the so-called millionaire’s tax, according to Board of Higher Education Chairman Chris Gabrieli. That revenue is earmarked for education and transportation, though the Legislature ultimately has the authority to decide how new revenue is spent from the law.
A third proposal would change a key aspect of the state's higher education financing system for the state universities to match that of the UMass system, in which individual campuses would keep both tuition and fee income. Currently, campuses keep fee income but must pass tuition revenue to the state's coffers. The funding structure has led to unusually high fees and lower tuition across Massachusetts public higher ed institutions — something the board is looking to address. Those costs would also be subject to Board of Higher Education approval.
Gabrieli said raising the financial aid funding total from $200 million to $400 million is a sure way to close inequality gaps for lower-income students.
“Almost the entirety of the funds we’re proposing will go towards serving students better," Gabrieli said in an interview about the new funding the board is considering.
The board doesn’t have the ability to make the changes by itself but can recommend changes to the Legislature. The two chairs of the state’s Joint Committee on Higher Education, Sen. Anne M. Gobi and Rep. David M. Rogers did not comment on the plan.
Massachusetts has been funding smaller shares of its state campuses' overall budgets for years, leaving a greater portion of the cost of attendance to fall on students and their families. From fiscal 2005 to 2020, state funding has fallen from 44% of public college budgets to 40%, while tuition and fees now make up 32%, up from 28%, according to a study commissioned by the higher ed board.
Mass. per-student funding
The state still funds its public colleges better than most states on a per-student basis. Massachusetts spent $9,611 per full-time equivalent student in fiscal 2021, according to the industry group State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
But that amount is a nearly 12% drop in the past two decades when adjusted for inflation, according to the higher education group, known as SHEEO.
The state’s financial aid for public college students is still worse.
Massachusetts ranked 22nd from the bottom in financial aid spending at a full-time-equivalent student rate, according to SHEEO. Its rate of $484 per student was far below the $735 national average.
“I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that we’re below the national average," Gabrieli said, citing the state's wealth and reputation in higher education. Even after the proposed financial aid increase, she added, "we'd still be nowhere near the top.
Public campuses in Massachusetts overwhelmingly educate in-state students. Nearly nine out of 10 students enrolled in public college are from Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Higher Education data, and roughly 70% of Massachusetts students who go on to college do so at one of the state’s public campuses.
The board’s review of state education funding began about a year ago when no one was sure whether millionaire’s tax revenue would be available. Estimates have varied widely on how much additional revenue the new tax system could yield, but numbers have been reported between $1.3 billion and $2.7 billion.
Student aid lags behind costs
Advocates praised the potential for greater financial aid for the state's public college students.
“I think it’s really exciting,” said Femi Stoltz, the Massachusetts policy director for uAspire, which helps students with affordability matters. “If more funding were available, more students would choose a path in higher education.”
State aid hasn’t been keeping up with fast-rising student costs, Stoltz said. Giving an example, she pointed to the state’s MASSGrant program for need-based assistance. In roughly two decades, the program has gone from covering 80% of a student’s costs to 14%, she said.
“That lack of financial support can create undue hardship for those who need it the most,” Stoltz said.
Pamela Herrup, the director of the group Journey Into Education & Teaching or JET, credited the state’s higher education department and board with making affordability for lower-income students more of a priority in recent years.
“But it hasn’t gone far enough,” she said.
JET helps paraprofessionals obtain a bachelor’s degree and teaching license. It is pushing for raising a cap on financial aid for such students, which Herrup said now maxes out at $7,500 per school year.
Community College drop
Massachusetts spent $1.9 billion on public colleges in fiscal 2021, according to state Department of Higher Education data. That annual funding hasn’t always matched public colleges’ needs, according to a Board of Higher Education study earlier this year. When enrollment has been highest — peaking about a decade ago — the state’s annual allotment was lowest, thanks to the state’s relatively poor fiscal situation then.
A change in higher-education funding would come as enrollment at the 28 Massachusetts public colleges has declined 14% from 2016 to 2021, a drop of more than 23,000 full-time-equivalent students. Public school enrollment has dropped 4% nationally during that period.
The 15 community colleges in Massachusetts have seen the biggest drop in enrollment by lower-income students, down one-third in the past decade. The number of students on UMass campuses, which are more likely to draw students from out of state, has grown.
Overall enrollment is projected to be a continual problem in the years ahead in states like Massachusetts where the number of local high school graduates is projected to drop.
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