All of us believe in public education, celebrate public education, and support public education. But for higher education truly to be public, it has to be affordable. And truth be told, we have reneged on that promise.
Take a look at the following analysis of the cost to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, our state’s biggest public university. The totals are for in-state students for one academic year, meaning Massachusetts residents who qualify for a discount compared to their out-of-state colleagues. The figure includes tuition, all required fees, as well as room and board.
Let’s go back 30 years, check in every 10 years, and add a look from five years ago to see the trajectory a little better:
Now let’s assume that students who began college in these years made it to graduation, donning the cap and gown after four successful years. Of course their expenses did not remain constant from freshman year. Based on annual figures provided by the university, here is what it would have cost if an in-state student went straight through:
Class of 1985-86: $15,719
Class of 1995-96: $37,316
Class of 2005-06: $56,927
Class of 2010-11: $76,503
We don’t know what to say about the class of 2015-16 just yet; four years at the present level would mean those students will be charged $92,668 – not counting whatever interest they might have to pay over time to borrow that money, which I assume almost all of them will have to do.
Of course a dollar in 1982 bought more than it does today, and there have been scholarships then and now that help some students hold down costs. But there is simply no getting around it:
A great university education in Massachusetts once was affordable for mainstream students and families. Now getting that education likely means being saddled with big debt at the beginning of a career, a heavy ball and chain right at the moment when people should feel their freest to explore the workplace and express their ambitions.
A survey done in 2010 at UMass-Boston, called “The Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement,” found that students certainly know the difficult situation they’re stepping into: Forty-five percent of responding freshmen said that paying for college would be “very difficult.” With yet more cost increases in the years since, that number must have grown.
Why has this happened?
We can blame school administrators for allowing costs to rise, but that doesn’t speak to the real truth: We are not supporting public education the way we should. Over the past 30 years, we have insisted on selective tax cuts and tax breaks first, even though that means heaping burden on our college-age children and their families.
The dry statistics bear this out: Massachusetts now ranks 32nd among all states in education spending as a percentage of our personal income. We chip in 4.07 percent of our income to public education of all kinds; the national average is 4.31 percent – which to my mind is outrageously low as well.
My goal is to find ways to make higher public education affordable again. Maybe we can’t go back to the 1970s and 1980s when I was in school, and if you got a job nights or weekend during the semester, then came to Cape Cod to work for the summer, you could pay your way to a bachelor’s degree – maybe even a master’s. But we have to get back to something close to that, and we have to commit public support, meaning state funding, to do that.
Where could that money come from?
I’ll leave you with one more statistic that suggests both where such funding should not come from, and where it could:
In Massachusetts, people earning less than $20,000 a year pay at least 10 percent of their income to state and local taxes. But people earning more than $556,000 a year pay only 5 percent of their income to state and local taxes.