Gov. Deval Patrick spoke with UMass students about the cost of college. Credit: Kirk Carpezza / WGBH
College students today are struggling with the state of higher education. For instance, class size is up 25 percent in some courses on University of Massachusetts campuses. Then, with money tight, schools are adding administrators to their payrolls. And if paying tuition isn't tough enough for most students, they're forced to pay hundreds of dollars more in fees.
At UMass Boston, Patrick hosted a private roundtable discussion with UMass President Robert Caret and several students, including sociology student Farrah Bruny-Brown.
“Coming up with $600 extra is just another struggle," said Bruny-Brown. "It makes it hard because you lose focus when it comes to education when you have to pay the bills.”
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Fifteen years ago, Bruny-Brown took custody of her three siblings two sisters and a brother. Since then, she’s had twins and she’s been trying to make ends meet by working three jobs.
"I’ve been watching the price increase as I go, but I’ve been trying to obviously not let it deter me from wanting to continue and finish,” she said.
Students like this all but forced Patrick and the legislature to approve a new state budget that freezes tuition and fees across the UMass system. That means Farrah won’t have to make hard financial choices about books, grocery bills and health care.
"Tuition is one thing," she said. "The fees that's what causes students to have to work those three jobs. It’s detrimental. It’s just $600 to most people, but it’s a lot of money to us college kids.”
A bigger detriment is student debt. The stalemate in Congress forced student loan interest rates to double on July 1.
In light of that federal inaction, Patrick stood shoulder-to-shoulder with students and said the commonwealth ought to play a bigger role in making college more affordable.
“This is about them today, yes, but it’s also about all of us tomorrow," he said. "And I pledge to you, we all do, to continue to work with you to move this journey along.”
UMass officials say tuition is still affordable to the average middle class family. Recent drastic cuts in funding to state universities has begun to turn around as lawmakers realize that if costs become unaffordable it will affect the tax rolls and the labor force.
Phil DiSalvio, the founding dean of UMass Boston’s new College of Advancing and Professional Studies, sees a bachelor’s degree as an artifact at a time when employers are looking for more narrow skills.
“We’re beginning to see the deinstitutionalization of higher education,” he said. “Students are beginning to think about the crumbling formal learning environments and they’re finding new education pathways to get what they want.”
DiSalvio says colleges and universities in Massachusetts and elsewhere ought to publish their outcomes graduation rates and job placements because more college students are demanding a return on their investment. Without it, students are left with mounting student debt and little hope of paying it back.