UMass growth in spending and non-resident students challenged

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BOSTON – Rapid growth in enrollment and capital spending in the University of Massachusetts system may be coming at the expense of its mission to serve in-state students, according to a study released this week by the Pioneer Institute in Boston.

The study calls for tuition increase for out-of-state students. It also suggests that the university explore a cap on enrollment of non-Massachusetts resident students, who pay more than in-state students to attend the university.

UMass Amherst, the system’s flagship campus which is cited several times in the study, issued a lengthy statement in response to the study and a six-page analysis, calling the report’s findings and assertions “deeply flawed and substantially unsound.”

“UMass Amherst’s rise in stature has done nothing but expanded opportunities for hard-working, highly qualified Massachusetts residents with limited means,” the statement said.

UMass enrollment increased by 27.3 percent between 2005 and 2014, far surpassing the 1.7 percent increase at other New England state universities and the 14.4 percent growth in U.S. public university enrollment over that period, according to the study, which was led by former state lawmaker and inspector general Gregory Sullivan.

At the same time, UMass has been carrying out a decade-long $3.8 billion capital plan, with $1.38 billion in costs paid by the state and the remainder being financed with university debt, according to the study. The university’s overall indebtedness grew from $946.2 million to $2.9 billion between fiscal 2005 and 2016, and annual debt payments grew from $88.5 million to $223.4 million during that time.

The three-part study called on officials to “determine a pragmatic plan that ensures UMass’ changing identity does not compromise the institution’s mission of serving Massachusetts’ students.”

The state’s public higher education network includes fifteen community colleges, six state universities, three specialized state colleges and the UMass campuses in Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell and UMass Medical School in Worcester. The UMass schools have a mission statement focused on research and public service.

Analysts concluded in the study that from 2008 to 2014, international undergraduate enrollment at UMass “skyrocketed” by more than 300 percent, while enrollment of students from Massachusetts at UMass increased by 8.8 percent during that period. Analysts also determined that getting admitted to UMass Amherst is more competitive – in 1992, the average freshman had a grade point average of 2.92; by 2014, the average had risen to 3.78. The flagship campus has risen in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the top 100 national universities.

In 2015, UMass Amherst accepted more freshmen from outside Massachusetts than it did in-state applicants for the first time, according to the study.

“UMass has much to be proud of in recent years,” Sullivan, Pioneer’s research director, said in a statement. “But there needs to be a vigorous public debate around whether the gains have compromised the university’s mission to serve Massachusetts.”

UMass Amherst officials described the study’s “emphasis on out-of state acceptance figures” as a significant problem, saying the number of students who enroll would be a better measure. Officials said they maintain a “deliberate strategy” to recruit out-of-state students, as such applicants are less likely to enroll than Massachusetts residents. In fall of 2015, 29 percent of Massachusetts students offered admission at UMass Amherst chose to enroll at the school, compared to 11 percent from out of state, according to the university.

“Having served throughout my career in senior administrative positions at flagship campuses in other states, I can state unequivocally that an institution’s vitality is enhanced immeasurably by a diverse student body that hails from across the country and around the world,” UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement. “Here at the Commonwealth’s flagship campus, our Massachusetts students benefit greatly from their exposure to students from other states and other countries. In today’s global economy, we owe it to our students to provide them with an educational environment that reflects the complexities and the richness of ideas and culture that exist beyond our borders.”

Asked about the study during an appearance on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio Thursday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker said the questions Pioneer raised about out-of-state enrollment were ones he hasn’t heard asked before.

“That’s a reasonable thing to ask about, but I’m a huge fan of the progress that the UMass system has made over the course of the past 5 or 10 years and I think we should all be,” Baker said.

Baker worked at the Pioneer Institute in the 1980s but said he hasn’t talked to anyone there about this issue or other topics “in a really long time.”

In testimony delivered to the House and Senate Ways and Means Committee in February, UMass President Marty Meehan said the number of both out-of-state and in-state students have increased over the past two decades. Meehan said that UMass enrollment increased by 44.5 percent over that timeframe, “making it one of the fastest-growing” universities in the country. Of the added students, 14,673 were in-state and “slightly more than 8,000” were out of state, he said.

“We are pleased that students from other countries and states are choosing UMass, but we of course will always have a special commitment to Massachusetts students,” Meehan said in his testimony.

Meehan told lawmakers he hoped to receive enough state support in the budget to keep tuition increases “to no more than inflation” next year.

Across the UMass system and at other public higher education institutions, state residents pay less than students from out-of-state.

Tuition and fees at UMass Amherst added up to $14,171 for Massachusetts residents and $30,504 for non-residents during the 2015 to 2016 school year, according to the university. UMass Boston tuition and fees cost $14,988 for in-state students and $32,226 for out-of-state students, while at UMass Lowell, in-state totals were $13,427 and out-of-state were $29,125. UMass Dartmouth charged residents $12,588 and out-of-state students $26,173.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, called the Pioneer report “an overly simplistic view of how public education finance works.”

“I grew up in a time when there were far fewer out-of-state students at UMass, but that was when the Commonwealth paid 90% of the cost of their education. Our approach to higher education financing has driven UMass to increase the number of out-of-state students because they pay 100% of the cost of their education,” Rosenberg said in a statement to the News Service. “If we were to embrace the Pioneer Institute’s vision, and return to the days of fewer out-of-state students, we would have to dramatically increase state funding to make up for the loss of revenue provided by out-of-state students who pay full tuition and fees and cross-subsidize in-state students. Until then, we should continue to welcome the number of out-of-state students for the support and enrichment they provide to UMass and other students.”

Senate budget writers unveiled their fiscal 2017 recommendations this week, allocating $521.3 million for the UMass system, a $20.5 million increase over this year’s appropriation. Baker recommended $508.3 million, a sum matched by the House budget.

Written by Katie Lannan and Michael Norton