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Mass. Higher Education System Faces Tough Times

Coping With the Budget Crunch

By Erik M. Weitzman

When it comes to funding for higher education, the Bay State is clearly exceptional.

Every other state in the nation has increased its commitment to higher education over the past two years--allocating an average of 14 percent more money for the budgets of publicly-funded colleges and universities.

Massachusetts, on the other hand, actually decreased funding by 9 percent during the same period, slashing more than $100 million in the higher education budget since 1988.

And in the wake of a state deficit estimated at $2.3 billion over the next two years, a higher education system that is already sucking in its gut is likely to have its belt tightened yet another notch.

"Next year will be very difficult for public higher education under any scenario," says Peter M. Mitchell, vice-chancellor of educational research for the Massachusetts Board of Regents.

The current budget crunch has already forced state colleges and universities to lay off workers, freeze hiring of new staff, cut support services and turn away many qualified students.

"Things are kind of grim," says Daniel J. Chesnicka, speaker of the Undergraduate Student Senate at U. Mass-Amherst. "Its really difficult to graduate in four years because the required courses are becoming hard to take."

At the University of Lowell, 312 class sections were eliminated between spring and fall of 1989, says Lowell student government executive board member Brenda M. Sadowski. Sadowski cites the case of an accounting course which offered 15 sections in the spring, but only two when students returned in the fall.

Louis Dars, associate vice-chancellor of research for the Board of Regents estimates that the state has had to lay off more than 1000 higher education employees since June 1988.

"What we face now is the firing of tenured faculty and the elimination of academic units," says Richard Rooney, student trustee at U. Mass-Boston. "We have massive classrooms where students sit on the floors to get an education."

Students say support services like campus maintenance and libraries have suffered as well. "The university is filthy, the physical plant is decaying," says Rooney.

While the quality of higher education has decreased as a result of the budget cuts, the price for students and parents has steadily risen.

In the last two years, tuition in state schools has increased between 7 and 8 percent on average, according to Terry C. Zoulas, Board of Regents public affairs director.

To make matters worse, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis made further emergency cuts at mid-year, asking education officials to give back $25 million of the $715 million in their original budget for the 1990 fiscal year.

School administrators say the cuts have seriously interfered with their ability to plan from year to year, forcing them to pass the additional costs along to students.

Southeastern Massachusetts University (SMU), for example, was allocated $35 million in June of 1988 but was forced by the governor to return $1 million in December of that year, according to university spokesperson Greg Stone.

Despite an even smaller budget the following year, Stone says, SMU had to return another $1.3 million to the state in December, lowering its budget to $31.9 million.

"The mood is one of extreme frustration. Not only are you dealing with less but you seldom know from day-to-day what you're dealing with," says Stone. "People around here are wondering 'are we going to get paid in June?'"

To cope with these unexpected cuts, schools have generally had to resort to increases in student fees.

Under the present system, the state Board of Regents centrally regulates tuition levels but leaves the setting of fees to individual campuses. The Board has attempted to maintain control over student costs by asking schools to keep fees at less than 30 percent of tuition, but many schools have disregarded the terms of this voluntary agreement.

At Amherst and Lowell, fees represent 49 and 43 percent of these schools' respective tuitions, says Zoulas.

And even schools like SMU, which abide by the Regents' 30 percent limit, say they have found it necessary to levy fee increases to keep their heads above water.

Zoulas says fees state-wide have "skyrocketed," rising 185 percent in the past six years.

For many students, higher tuition and increased fees have made the hope of gaining a quality education a financial impossibility, inspiring a wave of protests against the budget cuts. Two weeks ago, more than 5000 students marched on the State House to demonstrate frustration with the state's inability to solve the problem.

According to Joseph A. Langis, executive director of the State Student Association of Massachusetts (SSAM), some 9000 academically-qualified students have been prevented from entering state schools for financial reasons.

Overall enrollment is down as well, due to shrinking school resources. Massachusetts saw a 3 percent decrease in the number of students attending state schools between spring 1989 and 1990, says Dars. He attributed this figure to "dwindling state support," saying the figure is "too large to blamed on demographics."

Students who are able to make ends meet says the combination of cuts and higher costs is "demoralizing."

"We're paying a lot more for a lot less," says Amherst's Chesnicka.

"It's taken it's toll, it's starting to hit hard," says David Varela, student government president at Framingham State College. "Unfortunately people don't realize that there are students who aren't prepared for these increases in tuition, fees and housing--some students can't cut it."

These problems which have been experienced by administrators, faculty and students are unlikely to improve in the near future, many observers say.

Dukakis has called for an additional decrease of nearly $50 million in the higher education budget for fiscal year 1991, dropping the estimated level of higher education funding to about $640 million.

State legislators on Beacon Hill have yet to agree on a tax package which would resolve the present budget impasse, making it unclear whether even the governor's recommended level of funding will be achieved.

And on June 5th, the Board of Regents will announce its projected increase in the rate of tuition for the 1990-91 academic year. The tuition hike will be at least 9 percent, says Zoulas--adding that the figure could well rise into double digits.

In the long-term. Zoulas says the Board of Regents is attempting to bring total student costs under control, allowing individual schools to set tuition rates and letting the Board set a cap on total contribution.

Under this proposal, the average family contribution for student education costs--now between 20 and 30 percent--would be fixed at 30 percent for students at two-year schools and 35 percent for those at four-year institutions.

"The perception is that there are people who come from middle and upper income families who can be asked to pay a larger share of educational costs," says David S. Mundel, who headed the independent panel which suggested the plan to the Regents.

Increased tuition-waivers and scholarships for low-income students would help keep college affordable, Mundel says.

But this plan, which has not yet been approved, will not go into effect this year, state education officials say, and will likely be implemented on a gradual basis.

"It's a little like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic," says Stone, who says a new state tax package is the only real solution. "This is kind of interesting but it doesn't address the basic problem--the state has got to start funding higher education like the future depends on it--they're not now."

Legislators like Speaker George Keverian '53 (D--Everett) and Charles F. Flaherty (D--Cambridge) continue to call education a "priority" and agree on a need for a tax package, but according to Langis there are many representatives who are still looking for places to save money.

"I think the climate on Beacon Hill right now is very anti-tax and they're looking for more things to cut," says Langis. "I wouldn't be surprised if there are even more cuts made."

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