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Higher learning, lower funding

Michael Curry | 10/30/2013, 12:49 p.m.

Higher education is vital to economic prosperity, and it serves as the critical final step for students advancing through our state education system. It is well established that college graduates have much greater earning potential than do those with only a high school diploma. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn roughly $22,000 more annually than African Americans with just a high school diploma. College is one of the best lifelines out of low wage work and dead end jobs. In addition, college is an important pathway to homeownership, entrepreneurship and longer-term wealth creation — all continued challenges facing African Americans.

Recently, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center released a paper entitled “Higher Learning, Lower Funding: The Decline in Support for Higher Education in Massachusetts.” The paper analyzes trends in state funding for higher education over time, compares public higher education spending to other states, and identifies where Massachusetts students come from and where they go after graduation.

Despite the important contributions of higher education extending opportunity for everyone, the report finds that there has been a nationwide trend to cut higher education funding. Massachusetts cut contributions to higher education by 31 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2003. The national average of state reductions during this period was 10 percent. Only six states made greater reductions. The increased cost of higher education because of the cuts imposes an impediment to the economic progression of African Americans.

These state cuts in Massachusetts were largely driven by a number of significant changes made to the state tax code beginning in 1998, resulting in less state revenue to invest. These included a series of phased cuts to the state personal income tax. These tax cuts cost roughly $3 billion annually, restricting the state’s ability to fund essential services. Further, the state’s ability to fund programs has been hindered by the fact that the state’s economy has still not recovered from the “Great Recession” of 2008.

As state spending on higher education declined — primarily direct funding for the University of Massachusetts system, community colleges and state universities — tuition and fees at public institutions increased. Between fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2012 state appropriations per full time student declined by $2,291 at UMass, $1,193 at state universities and $1,352 at community colleges (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile full time tuition and fees rose by an average of $3,684 for UMass students, $2,294 at state universities and $918 at community colleges (adjusted for inflation).

Like students across the state, Boston area students have been faced with these higher costs. For example, students at UMass Boston have seen tuition and fees rise by $4,280, the highest increase of all public campuses in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2013 (adjusted for inflation). Further, tuition and fees at Roxbury and Bunker Hill Community Colleges rose by $881 and $506 respectively (adjusted for inflation).

As student payments make up an increasingly large share of public university budgets, these institutions risk losing much of their public character. In fact, as late as last year, the chancellor of the UMass system, Robert Caret, while arguing for increased state investment in higher education, warned that cutbacks in state funds put the university system at risk of “becoming private.”

Public institutions of higher education primarily educate Massachusetts natives and these young people are more likely to remain in state upon graduation. According to the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study, 72 percent of all students who graduate from Massachusetts public institutions remain in the state for their first year after graduation while only 47 percent of private university graduates stay in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, the state did prioritize investments in public higher education for the current school year. This year, the state increased its appropriation to higher education by $86.6 million over last year. While this offsets only a portion of these long term cuts, it is a positive first step toward re-investing in our public system of higher education.

Michael Curry is president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP and Chris Gustafson is a Policy Analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.