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Globe Editorial

Middle-class blues at UMass

February 12, 2009
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A PROPOSED fee hike at the University of Massachusetts is needed to maintain academic quality across the five-campus system. But it falls too heavily on middle-class families struggling to educate their children during the economic downturn.

UMass trustees are expected to vote today on a proposal that would raise college fees by $1,500 on 52,000 full-time students. If it passes, the university could offset some of next year's $102 million budget shortfall and provide about $20 million more in financial aid to low-income students. The proposal is progressive - a point in its favor, because the fee hike would be offset by more aid for students whose families earn less than the state median income of $78,500.

Yet 45 percent of undergraduates would be assessed the entire fee. And in today's weakened economy, many of these families also face hardships. (And news that UMass administrators topped the list of the state's best-paid employees doesn't make those hardships go down easier.)

UMass remains a good deal. Federal contribution guidelines for families and university grants mean that most students pay considerably less than the $18,346 sticker price for tuition, fees, and room and board. A family earning $40,000 pays less than $3,000, or about 7 percent of its income. A family earning just north of $100,000 pays $15,008, or 15 percent. Progessivity in tax codes is one thing. But it's stretching the point to ask those earning narrowly more than the state median income to absorb $1,500 fee increases, while others earning narrowly less are held harmless or can even expect UMass to meet 100 percent of their tuition and fees through new grants.

Private colleges, commendably, have been reaching out to less well-off students. But with price tags above $40,000, the schools are driving many middle-class families from the field. UMass should be wary of moving in that direction.

Wisely, university president Jack Wilson says he would be open to refunding all or part of the fee hike if significant new funds flow to UMass from the federal stimulus bill. But the trustees should also protect the college's public mission by asking more families to absorb at least part of the fee hike. A sliding scale that begins with families earning above $40,000 is less jarring than a stiff fee that kicks in around $78,500.

State lawmakers also need to address, once and for all, the hazy financial picture at UMass, especially the strange mixture of tuition and fee categories that confound families. Much of the "tuition" charged at UMass - about $46 million this year - is sent directly to the state's general fund, while fees can be retained on campus. Like other state universities, UMass should be allowed to retain its full tuition income without subtracting the sum from its line item in the state budget. And everyone on campus, within economic reason, should share the burden of the current economic crisis.

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