UMass student costs tied up in outcome of state budget talks

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BOSTON — As University of Massachusetts officials take an extra month to decide on student charges for the next school year, they plan to advocate for additional state funding.

The university system’s Administration and Finance Committee on Wednesday agreed to defer a planned vote on tuition and fees until a July meeting, after UMass President Marty Meehan suggested the decision be put on hold until the state’s fiscal 2017 budget is finalized. State budget writers face a July 1 deadline.

“Our goal of course is to arrive at the best possible appropriation so that we can mitigate what we will need to implement for tuition,” Meehan said.

Meehan said discussions with legislative leadership prompted him to believe the establishment of 2016-2017 tuition and fees should wait until it is clear how much money the Legislature will appropriate for the five-campus system.

With a panel of lawmakers set to begin negotiations this week on competing House and Senate budgets, Meehan said UMass “will not know for another month or so where things will land.”

A supplemental spending bill passed by the Legislature in March steered $10.9 million to UMass to fund the first year of a three-year collective bargaining agreement. Meehan pegged collective bargaining costs as a noteworthy difference between the House and Senate budgets, saying the Senate fully funded the first two years of increases while the House did not.

“If we could set up a model where we could get collective bargaining paid for, I could imagine a scenario whereby we could have tuition increases that are reasonable, meaning cost of living or meaning how prices go up,” Meehan told the finance committee. “We did that for a number of years for this university. When we got the collective bargaining, then we were able to have cost of living increases that were reasonable, 2 percent, 2 and a half percent, 3 percent, so that is something I think we should all agree that we want to work on.”

UMass requested state funding of $564.9 million, adjusted for tuition retention, for 2017. According to figures provided by the university, the final 2016 allocation — including the supplemental funds for collective bargaining — totaled $511.7 million.

Both Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal 2017 budget recommendation and the House budget allocated $508.3 million. The Senate budget allocated $521.3 million.

“The governor and the House increased the university’s appropriation by $5.3 million,” Meehan said. “Because the $10.9 million in supplemental funding was received after the development of the governor’s and House budgets, their recommendations obviously didn’t have the $10.9 million therefore actually represent a cut to the university’s budget.”

On Friday, a six-member conference committee tasked with ironing out the differences between the House and Senate budgets plans to hold its first meeting.

Meehan said UMass officials are “working with the House and Senate to advocate for higher levels of funding,” though this year’s state tax revenues are creating “uncertainty.”

After tax collections in April and May fell below expectations, the state is facing a $311 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year.

“The revenue reports are, frankly, alarming,” Meehan said. “I have concerns from a fiscal standpoint about what the state numbers are going to be and what our need is going to be.”

UMass trustee David Fubini said the university’s potential for revenue is limited in two ways, bound on one side by the potential for tuition increases and on the other by “the realities of state funding.”

“We have to find a way to get out of that box,” Fubini said. “And one of the ways is to do more with our existing operations, and that means getting more leverage out of our existing faculty and administrative staff, and that means academic efficiencies.”

Faculty, alumni and students from UMass Boston and Lowell marched outside the downtown Boston building where university officials met, protesting against potential tuition hikes and faculty reductions.

Joe Ramsey, a lecturer in English and American studies at UMass Boston, said he was concerned higher costs would force financially struggling students to take on more debt or pick up extra work hours outside of class, taking away attention from their studies.

“I have students who are working 40 hours a week at the same time they’re going to school already,” Ramsey said. “The $600, $700 difference this tuition hike could make could mean that they’re not going to be able to come back, and that’s wrong. We should be going in the other direction. We should be making tuition more affordable.”

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service