Higher ed bill would add millions, freeze tuition, fees

BOSTON — State legislators will be asked to consider a bill that would add millions to the higher education system and freeze tuition and fees in an effort to broaden educational opportunities.

“We need to make sure that these students first have the opportunity to get into higher education and then that they graduate from higher education,” said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

Sannicandro said the committee took the suggestions of a commission on higher education made up of industry leaders, state legislators, representatives of private colleges and universities, as well as a separate task force on student debt.

The bill would require that a fixed budget of $95 million per year for five years – approximately $475 million (excluding inflation and collective bargaining increases) – be taken from the discretionary fund and directed at the community colleges, state universities and University of Massachusetts system.

The bill would impose a freeze on tuition and fees for students over a fixed period of time and invest $42 million into the MASSGrant program, which provides need-based financial aid to students in Massachusetts.

Sannicandro said the changes are needed to support Massachusetts’ “technical, brain-powered economy” and changing demographics which means that some people are not able to take advantage of the state’s higher education opportunities, especially those who are “chronically underrepresented” racially, ethnically and socioeconomically.

“We don’t have any coal or oil or really any other natural resources, but we’ve got plenty of brainpower and we need to continue to feed that,” he said.

Sannicandro said because businesses are demanding a more educated and “credentialed” workforce, the bill would require the state to match any private contributions made to its community college internship incentive program.

“We know that businesses really are demanding a more educated workforce,” he said.

Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, said while the bill has garnered sponsors, it is asking for a large amount of money at a time when “we have a limited amount of money.”

But Story, who supports the bill, said better funding for higher education is “desperately” needed.

“Students are leaving college with massive amounts of student debt, and are having to work a couple of jobs in addition to taking a full-time load,” Story said. “If we want an educated workforce in the commonwealth, and we certainly do, we need to make it easier for people to get a college degree.”

She was echoed by Natalie Higgins, executive director of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, a higher education advocacy group, who said the freeze on tuition and fees would help students who often are just barely able to afford their educations.

“What’s frustrating for me is seeing the tuition and fees going up every year and seeing students who are just making it work and who are forced to go part-time,” she said.

But the proposal faces a hard road. Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which would allocate $539 million to the UMass system, 1.4 percent more than its current budget of $532 million, has been criticized by Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, for its “woefully inadequate” funding.

This article was originally published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette on March 5, 2016.

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