Tuition across all University of Massachusetts campuses will increase this fall for the first time in three years, ending a pandemic-era freeze as the higher education system’s leaders grapple with dark financial clouds on the horizon.
UMass overseers voted 12-2 on Wednesday to approve a package of tuition and fee hikes first proposed at a committee meeting last week. Two student trustees, Derek Houle of UMass Lowell and Narcisse Kunda of UMass Dartmouth, cast the only dissenting votes.
Tens of thousands of in-state undergraduate UMass students face a 2.5 percent jump in tuition in the 2022-23 academic year, representing between $346 and $395 more per year, as well as increases in room and board costs ranging from 1.9 percent to 3.9 percent. Out-of-state undergraduates face roughly similar tuition increases next year, as do all graduate students at the Amherst, Boston and Lowell campuses
UMass had suspended annual tuition increases on its four nonmedical campuses for each of the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that UMass President Marty Meehan on Wednesday estimated led to about $32 million in foregone revenue.
Meehan said seeking another tuition freeze would not be “sustainable” in the current economic climate and with the public university system likely to face higher benefit costs.
“Here is the challenge we are facing: the annual inflation rate in the United States has now accelerated to a four-decade high of 8.5 percent. That’s the highest increase since December of 1981,” Meehan said at the board of trustees’ Wednesday meeting. “I am also concerned about the possible increase in the fringe benefit assessment by the commonwealth. The student charge adjustment combined with additional cost-saving measures that we hope will be new investment by the commonwealth will help us to confront this challenge.”
UMass officials argued that the average 2.5 percent tuition increase is significantly lower than the inflation rate.
For in-state undergraduates, combined annual tuition and mandatory fees will increase in fiscal year 2023 to $16,952 at UMass Amherst; $15,172 at UMass Boston; $14,854 at UMass Dartmouth; and $16,182 at UMass Lowell. Graduate students also face total increases between 2.3 percent and 3.1 percent at Amherst, Boston and Lowell. At UMass Dartmouth, they will instead be subject only to a $100 jump in fees.
Tuition and fee increases will also hit UMass Law, where the combined cost for in-state students will rise 3.2 percent to $30,175, and the UMass Chan Medical School. Combined tuition and fees will increase roughly 2.5 percent at the T.H. Chan School of Medicine, Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing and Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Meehan said students will collectively share nearly $1 billion in financial aid from federal, state and UMass sources. The university system will provide $373 million of that support, an 8 percent increase over the previous year and a more than 15 percent increase since Meehan took over in 2015, he said.
Board members echoed concerns about inflation pressures on UMass, particularly as the schools work to rebound from pandemic-inflicted strain.
While he said UMass is in “very good fiscal shape,” board of trustees Chair Robert Manning said the system “continue(s) to struggle with enrollment,” which could exacerbate funding headaches moving forward.
”We don’t get a break at UMass because we’re facing another endemic problem of hyper-inflation, and that’s going to hit us in many regards,” Manning said. “It’s going to increase the cost of our debt financing. It’s going to increase food costs at all of our campuses. It’s going to increase labor costs and energy costs, and it’s really going to be another difficult period where we’re going to have to be very fiscally responsible to get through this.”
”All of the chancellors and this board are going to have to be very vigilant in the next couple of years to keep the fiscal house in order,” he added. “There will be more difficult decisions that are going to need to be made, which will be unpopular, but our job is to make sure the institution endures, stays healthy and can deliver on its mission to educate as many students in the commonwealth as we possibly can.”
Education advocates have long pressed for Massachusetts lawmakers to rethink how they fund higher education, though bills such as the so-called “Cherish Act” to steer significantly more state dollars into public colleges and universities have not gained any traction with legislative leaders.
Top House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled their fiscal year 2023 state budget proposal, which would boost state funding for the UMass system to $653 million. That’s significantly more than the roughly $580 million Gov. Charlie Baker recommended in his budget bill.
Asked if that allocation would be enough to avoid a tuition increase, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz declined to answer directly.
“I don’t want to speculate on what UMass will or won’t do, but this was at their request, this is the number that they asked for,” Michlewitz said. “Now will that lead to no tuition? I can’t speculate on what they’re going to do with that.”
In a statement, Meehan said the House’s budget plan “makes critical investments in our 75,000 UMass students by funding increases in financial aid and support for behavioral health services while also investing in our workforce and partnering with the university to confront historic inflation.”
“These investments will create life-altering opportunities for our students and drive the innovation economies of every region of Massachusetts,” Meehan said. The tuition hikes approved Wednesday drew quick criticism from Republican state auditor candidate Anthony Amore, who pointed to high salaries among UMass administrators and the system’s spending on new building construction.
“Instead of making students and families spend 2.5% more, UMass trustees should be instructing campuses to spend 2.5% less,” Amore said in a statement. “As a parent of a UMass student, I wonder if we are really getting what we are paying for. I believe we are pricing out many families, especially the low-income and first-generation students, or driving them into overwhelming debt. As state auditor, I will make it my priority to stand up for students forced to borrow loans to pay for big salaries and even bigger buildings.”