Higher cost of higher ed

Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on April 8, 2016. 

Bridgewater State University students face a potential $700 increase in student fees next fall, the largest hike since 2007, if the Legislature doesn’t increase funding for public higher education, officials say.

“What happens when the state doesn’t come through with their fair share is we have to raise fees on students to keep the institution going, or cut and reduce programs to make everything workable,” said David Morwick, legislative adviser to the president of Bridgewater State. “We have had fee increases throughout the years, but those fees have grown quite a bit.”

Since 2007, the cost of tuition and fees at Bridgewater State have gradually increased from $5,866 to $8,928, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Tuition and fees remained frozen between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2014, but picked back up the next fiscal year with an additional $300 tab. Last year, students faced a $600 increase, the highest since 2007.

They could see more fees this year if collective bargaining agreements with faculty and staff continue to go unfunded by the state.

Last year, all nine state universities were forced to cut programs and increase student fees after the Legislature refused to fund the $8 million in union contracts that universities were obligated to pay.

Although Gov. Charlie Baker allocated more than $1.2 billion in higher education funding in his version of the state budget, no funds were allocated toward collective bargaining agreements for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

Matthew Jepson, a senior from Bridgewater State University and the student trustee on the school’s board of trustees, said the university is projecting a $5 million gap for the 2016-2017 school year if collective bargaining continues to go unfunded.

He said the Bridgewater State board is already projecting a 4 percent reduction in department budgets alongside the $700 increase in student fees. The projection mirrors a pattern of program cuts and increased fees the university has seen over the past few years.

“We’re paying more in fees, but it seems like the money isn’t there because we have to invest it in operational costs, fringe benefits or collective bargaining costs,” he told The Sun Chronicle.

Morwick said increased fees are a burden on students and their families, many of whom choose public schools because they cannot afford a private education. The lack of funding from the state impedes on Bridgewater’s ability to keep prices affordable.

“We’re trying to keep our schools as affordable as we can so that it’s possible for working families to send their children on to get a degree,” he said. “But if we don’t get the help from the Legislature, then unfortunately we have to tack on student fees or reduce student programs.”

Ten Bridgewater State University students joined almost 100 public university students at the Statehouse Wednesday to lobby for increased public higher education funding.

Alongside funding for collective bargaining agreements, students also asked legislators to continue efforts toward a 50-50 funding system for state universities.

Morwick said the state funded 55 percent of Bridgewater operation costs in 2002, but cut funding when the recession took a toll on the economy. From 2010 to 2012, the state provided 21 percent of Bridgewater’s budget.

The state currently funds around 30 percent of operating costs, while students and their families make up the remaining 70 percent, Morwick said.

While state universities are a more affordable option for many students, the state still has a responsibility to fund financial aid and scholarship programs, said members of the State University Council of Presidents, who hosted the Statehouse rally.

According to the coalition, the average Massachusetts state university costs students around $9,000 a year, or 24 percent less than the average New England private university. Need-based financial aid, however, covers only 9 percent of student costs, on average.

The coalition of university presidents said that Massachusetts ranked 46 out of 50 states in need-based aid in fiscal year 2015.

Jepson said Bridgewater State dedicates $300,000 to student scholarships each year, while the state contributes $175,000 to the student scholarship fund. Students at Wednesday’s Statehouse rally asked their legislators to invest an extra $125,000 to match Bridgewater’s commitment to students who rely on scholarships for their education.

Julia Stern, a junior at Bridgewater State from Westford, said she is only able to attend college because of the financial aid and scholarships she receives — and she knows she’s not the only one.

“Financial aid and scholarships (are) essential to, not only my education, but everyone else’s, as well,” she told The Sun Chronicle at the rally. “Without that funding, I think our school is going to suffer greatly, and I think we’re going to lose a lot of students and a lot of people who deserve education but need help in order to get it.”

Massachusetts has nine state universities: Bridgewater State, Fitchburg State, Framingham State, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Salem State, Westfield State, and Worcester State.


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