EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 18, 2011

UMass chief: 'Untenable' debt driving up tuition

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service

BOSTON — The growing cost of covering debt is crowding out the ability of the University of Massachusetts's five campuses to invest in faculty, staff and other projects and is driving up tuition and fees for students, UMass president Robert Caret said yesterday.

"It's just untenable," Caret said during a State House hearing attended by two of the 10 members of the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets.

Caret said the UMass system — with five campuses, 16,000 employees, 68,200 students and a $2.7 billion operating budget — shoulders 85 percent of costs associated with borrowing to support construction and renovation of buildings and facilities. At its Amherst campus, he said, the school is spending 8 percent of its operating budget on debt service. Each campus, he noted, is responsible for its own debt costs.

Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, chairman of the committee, said he has concerns that the UMass system has become nearly as costly as private universities around the state.

"Certainly in my area, some kids are priced out. I really hate to see that," he said.

Cabral said he sympathizes with university officials' concerns about borrowing costs, although he noted that whether the university shoulders its debt burden or the state takes on more of the load, "In essence, it's all the Commonwealth."

"I'm hearing you and I understand that adds tremendous pressure on your operating budget. That translates to fees, tuition," Cabral said. "It's an ongoing discussion with you and UMass as a whole in terms of how we strike a better balance."

Caret took the helm of the UMass system this summer, succeeding Jack Wilson. He described a growing demand for access to UMass schools — 17 percent enrollment growth over the last five years — and a long backlog of maintenance projects. Caret said university officials hope to reduce that backlog over the next five to 15 years, and he intends to push for access to capital funds authorized in state life sciences and higher education borrowing legislation enacted in 2008.

Stephen Lenhardt, deputy higher education commissioner, said Massachusetts is part of a long-term national trend of state governments decreasing their support for their public colleges and universities.

"When I started at UMass Boston 40 years ago, the state provided 85 percent of the operating budget at that institution. Today it provides 40 percent of the operating budget," he said. "Our state universities are getting only about 45 percent of their funding from the state budget. Scholarship dollars have not kept up with this cost shift."

He said student costs at public institutions are split at about 80 percent in fees and 20 percent from tuition. Fees are retained by the universities while tuition revenues are sent to the state, Freeland said.

"What has happened, the basic dynamic has been, as costs have shifted from the state appropriation to students, that has not been reflected in tuition increases, which have stayed pretty level," he said. "It has been reflected in fees."