UMass tuition freeze dies in House-Senate budget talks

The approval Monday of a $43.1 billion state budget resolves a question that had kept University of Massachusetts officials from setting tuition rates for this fall, though students will have longer still to wait before they know what their final cost will be.

UMass trustees last week postponed a planned vote on tuition and fees for the school year that begins in September, with school officials saying they first needed to see the outcome of the budget deliberations that stretched three weeks into the fiscal year.

That vote has not yet been rescheduled as of Monday evening, about six weeks before the start of fall classes for the roughly 75,000 UMass students.

While both the House and the Senate funded UMass at $558 million, the Senate included a prohibition on raising tuition or fees for in-state undergraduates. That tuition freeze, which UMass officials said would force cuts across its campuses, was scrapped during negotiations and not included in the final budget sent to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk on Monday, clearing the path for a potential increase to student charges.

Though budget negotiators increased their revenue estimate by nearly $600 million and then allocated those funds for spending and savings, they did not appropriate additional money to UMass, where officials said they would need an extra $10 million to freeze tuition without making cuts elsewhere.

"Lawmakers are forcing tuition and fee hikes on thousands of students and families by underfunding our public colleges for yet another year," Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, said in a statement. "We are glad the unfunded UMass tuition freeze was excluded, and we support all efforts to create a formula or process to end the annual ritual of underfunding public colleges in Massachusetts."

PHENOM treasurer Elizabeth Pellerito, a UMass Lowell staff member, called the exclusion of the tuition freeze "a small positive note" in an otherwise "incredibly disappointing" budget.

"This unfunded tuition freeze wouldn't have fixed the actual problem, and would have meant nearly 100 layoffs at UMass Lowell alone," she said, calling for lawmakers to pass legislation steering additional state funds into public higher education and make it more affordable for students.

Sen. Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat whose district includes the UMass Boston campus, said he was "OK with" the budget conferees' decision to drop the tuition freeze language.

"We've got some work to do with UMass Boston, both as relates to what we're doing here in the Legislature, but also Bayside, and what that development can do to really reset the campus and the financial situation," he told the News Service, referring to the $235 million long-term deal to redevelop the former Bayside Expo Center site next to the Dorchester campus.

Collins said he was happy with the $39 million increase to the UMass line item, which he said "shows the commitment the Legislature continues to have to supporting UMass and its students."

Asked if he was concerned students might end up paying more this fall, Collins said, "I'm most concerned about the fiscal footing of not just the system, but particularly the UMass Boston campus, and we're going to continue working with them on that."

The spending bill lawmakers in both branches agreed to on Monday calls for each center and institute at UMass Boston to be funded "at an amount not less than in fiscal year 2018."

It also includes a new requirement that UMass officials meet with Ways and Means chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Higher Education Committee Chairs Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Anne Gobi before Jan. 15, 2020 to discuss a five-year projected spending plan, cost-saving efforts, and information on expenses, enrollment, tuition and financial aid.

Gobi said she hoped those conversations would produce "just a little bit more transparency."

"I think that's really all that we were trying to do before, to get an idea of what UMass is thinking, what their plans are, and I don't think we're asking them to do anything that they shouldn't be able to do anyway, to kind of project a few years out," she said after the Senate's budget vote. "I think that makes some great sense because we want to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent the right way, and that's one way to find out."

A UMass spokesman said the school would be happy to provide the information requested, as an extension of its existing reporting. UMass officials also testify each year before the Ways and Means Committee during the panel's series of budget hearings.

At this year's budget hearing, UMass officials said they could freeze tuition and fees for in-state undergrads if their full $568.3 million request was fulfilled, and UMass President Marty Meehan later said the university's budget assumes a 2.5 percent tuition increase if not.

"The appropriation of additional funds to cover the state's share of collective bargaining increases allows us to proceed with our FY20 budget as projected and continue focusing on the most important aspect of our mission – providing our students with a world-class UMass education," Meehan said in a statement Monday.

The budget increases the UMass appropriation by $39 million over fiscal 2019, about $34 million of which university officials have said represents full funding of the state's share of collective bargaining costs.

Meehan and the chancellors of the four undergraduate campuses -- Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell -- had objected to the Senate's tuition-and-fee freeze language, in May blasting it as a "devastating" move that would force millions of dollars of cuts.

Meehan, in an interview that aired Sunday on WCVB's "On the Record," said the five-campus system was "constantly" looking for ways to save money and become more efficient. He pointed to efforts including buying products as a system and handling payroll through the central office.

"We could probably help the state colleges and state universities cut their expenses by having us do their payroll," Meehan said.

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