Higher Education Must Remain ‘Affordable’

Community colleges across the country promise access to higher education at an affordable price. These two-year institutions are low in cost and high in value. They are academically supportive, offer flexible class schedules, and respond quickly to the needs of the surrounding community and its employers.

However, the first part of that promise – affordability – is endangered in Massachusetts.

A recent study by MassINC (the Mass. Institute for a New Commonwealth) reveals that the state’s enviable array of private four-year colleges are rapidly rising in price – with tuition now accounting for 33% of a family’s income, as opposed to 25% in 1992-93. Our four-year public colleges are reflecting a similar increase — from 18% to 21% of a family’s income.

As Massachusetts residents turn to community colleges, the traditionally most affordable sector of higher education, where more than half of our residents begin their college careers, they discover that these costs are also rising. For these students, who are often the first in their families to attend college, and generally hold down a part-time or even full-time job, any increase in fees can mean the difference between going to college and going without.

Community colleges are still an unbeatable value, frequently charging only one-tenth the cost of private colleges. Community colleges are the entry to rewarding careers and a low-cost foundation toward a bachelor’s degree.

At this crucial time for the Massachusetts economy — when large numbers of taxpayers are moving out of state for perceived better opportunities and when our innovation economy and current industry are dependent on educated employees — the governor and our Legislature must follow through on the plan to adequately support public higher education.

Our public higher education institutions, once described as state-supported, have for the past decade been more accurately described as state-assisted. Massachusetts, as a high-income state, has the ability to do more for public higher education, but actually ranks 49th in the country in per-capita support for its public institutions.

As a result of the significant decline in support, our annual state appropriation barely covers the cost of employee payroll. This leaves the colleges to find their own operating funds. One result is that maintenance is generally deferred – leaving power plants, buildings, and equipment to continue to deteriorate. And last year, our energy costs rose by a combined total of nearly $1 million at STCC, HCC, and GCC.

Our colleges have become more nimble and creative in pursuing grants and private funding. Capital and major gift campaigns, once the province of private institutions, are increasingly common at state institutions. And as a last resort, colleges have been forced to raise their fees, supplementing inadequate state aid by increasing direct costs to the group that can least afford them – our students. This trend must be reversed.

Our state legislators worked diligently this year to create a seven-year plan to fill the identified funding gap in our public institutions. A joint task force studied the needs for our state and drew up a comprehensive plan which, as the Public Higher Education bill, was passed by the House and moved to the Senate. We urge the Senate to meet the challenge of passing Bill 2380, to carry out this plan and adequately fund the institutions that represent the future success of our young people and our commonwealth.

“Higher education is the gateway to the American dream,” says Ian Bowles, president and CEO of MassINC. “But its cost is accelerating much faster than income … as a region that is struggling with a high cost of living and the out-migration of young families, we should make this challenge a priority.”-

Robert Pura is president of Greenfield Community College, and chairman of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Presidents’ Council; William Messner is president of Holyoke Community College; Ira H. Rubenzahl is president of Springfield Technical Community College