The debate about UMass Amherst’s acquisition of Mt. Ida College is an important one, but it ignores an unavoidable truth - Massachusetts has failed to prioritize and invest in public higher education for a generation. That failure has burdened thousands of students across Massachusetts and deterred countless more from seeking to improve themselves. That failure has left each of the 29 campuses - 5 UMass branches, 9 State Universities and Colleges, 15 Community Colleges - to fend for themselves. That failure has weakened Massachusetts. If we want to lessen economic inequality and create a stronger, fairer economy, we must invest to create a world-class, affordable public higher education system.
Between 2001 and 2017, Massachusetts cut higher education spending 14 percent. At the same time, despite serious public concerns about the rising cost of higher education, the value of that education has never been greater. Right when we should be encouraging and enabling more students to invest in their future, our budgetary choices are doing the exact opposite. The impact has been real and direct. Declines in state funding have led to increases in tuition and fees and with them, student debt. Instead of helping students better themselves and in turn, strengthen our communities we are crippling them with crushing debt burdens. Instead of opening the doors of opportunity wide, we are pushing away those who cannot carry that debt and, ultimately, holding our economy back.
Without sufficient state support campus leaders are left to try and solve these problems, for their students and institutions, with a limited set of imperfect tools. Tuition and fee increases are the most blunt instruments. Unlike many other important state programs and services, higher education has the ability to raise its own revenue. This unfortunate reality makes it all that much easier to cut state support for public higher education when it is framed as a difficult choice among worthy expenditures within a constrained budget. Another tool is greater reliance on out of state students, who pay a greater rate, to subsidize campus budgets. While it may seem harmless to admit a greater proportion of out-of-state students, it is difficult to see how reliance on these students as a revenue source doesn’t erode the spirit of the system, while potentially limiting opportunities for in-state students.
Massachusetts is blessed with world-class schools from K-12 through universities. We can have the best public higher education system in the world if we choose to make it a priority. For too long we have not. If we want to reduce inequality, prepare our citizens for the future and make the most of our greatest resource - our people - we must change that. If there is a positive to come out of the rancorous debate about if it was proper for UMass to acquire Mt. Ida, I hope it is this - public and private sector leaders recognize that the status quo is unacceptable and they commit to make public higher education the priority it needs to be for Massachusetts to be all it can and should be for everyone.
Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.
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