Our Opinion: Debate needed on private college funding

The demands for higher education funding in the state when dollars are tight has prompted a discussion on Beacon Hill about ending financial assistance to the wealthiest private colleges. This is admittedly tempting, but it doesn't get at the real issues.

In April, state Representative Christopher Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat, filed an amendment to the House budget bill that would have banned financial aid dollars from going to colleges with endowments of more than $1 billion, a ban that would include Williams College (Boston Globe, May 16.) The amendment didn't pass but the debate is not likely to end, nor should it.

In 2016, about a third of the $96 million the state spent on financial aid grants went to private colleges. Williams College received a modest $154,000, but the $3 million combined given to Boston University and Boston College last year undoubtedly caught the notice of eastern lawmakers. (The Globe's Michael Levenson got this data through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the state Board of Education.)

Those endowments are impressive and tuition prices are strikingly high. Private colleges, however, use those endowments in part to reduce the costs of low- and middle-income students attending their schools. Richard J. Doherty, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, asserted in The Globe that private colleges spent $608 million to defray high tuition costs in 2016.

A state that is justifiably proud of both its public and private colleges and universities should be wary of starting a funding war among them. In Berkshire County, Williams, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Berkshire Community College not only educate students from near and far they help make up the fabric of the Berkshires. The current public-private funding ratio is not unreasonable — and it is not the problem either.

A 2014 report by the state Higher Education Finance Commission cited by The Globe found that Massachusetts ranked 28th in the nation in the percentage of its public higher education budget devoted to financial aid. More generally, Massachusetts higher education funding declined by about 15 percent from 2008 to 2016 according to the Center on Budget and Policy. The problem should be less about how the funding pie is divided between public and private but the size of the pie.

The House last month heard a proposal from a representative of the state's public colleges urging that state funding for private schools be capped at $16 million, about half of what was spent in 2016. If enacted, this cap would not cripple Williams College or the other private college universities with large endowments that prompted this discussion on Beacon Hill, but it could harm the private schools within the state that are struggling financially. It would be preferable to better target state funding to private colleges and universities that are having documented financial problems — Boston College and Boston University are not among them.

The House debate has also raised questions that require consideration on Beacon Hill. Why did it take an FOIA request to get what should be readily accessible public information? What are the specific criteria used to determine which private schools receive funding and how much? Should schools affiliated with religious groups, such as the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, which is sound financially, receive state funding, as they do? Capping funds to private schools is a worrisome "solution" to a larger problem of funding, but it could be the starting point for a much larger debate on the connection between the state and private schools and the need for improved disclosure of that connection.


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