UMass Chair Sounds Alarm Over Higher Ed’s “graduation Rate Crisis”
By Nicole DeFeudis
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
AMHERST -- While not on the agenda, student debt and graduation rates emerged as focuses of last week’s University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees meeting where students offered an olive branch to trustees in a plea to freeze rising tuition rates.
The conversation, which began at a trustees meeting, continued on campus into the afternoon when nine UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy and Advocacy students marched a wooden box with more olive branches and student testimonials to new legislators attending training events with Beacon Hill leaders.
“We ask you to join us in urging our legislators to halt tuition and fee increases and to ensure a prosperous future for anyone who seeks it,” Erik Plowden, student speaker and CEPA member, said at the trustee meeting.
Opening the 10 a.m. meeting in the Old Chapel, chairman Robert Manning said declining enrollment and graduation rates are taking a toll on the higher education industry.
“There are many, many, many higher education institutions both private and public that are going to go out of business in this country in the next five years,” he said. He added, “We don’t have a student debt crisis in this country, what we have is a graduation rate crisis.”
Since 1980, more than half of the people who have enrolled in colleges or universities have not graduated, Manning said, and more than half of the $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt is owed by people who do not hold college degrees.
“You’re doing a tremendous disservice to society when you sign somebody up with the promise of giving them hope and opportunity, and not allowing them to walk off your campuses with the empowerment to do so, and be laden with debt as well. So that is the real crisis that exists in higher education,” he said.
Manning also cited “a lot of red flags” in the global economy.
“My guess is in the next year or two we’re going to have another recession and the whole sphere in which we operate is going to come under pressure,” he said. “So it’s really important as the campuses put their budgets together that they make sure that we have a positive margin, that we’re building reserves and we’re getting ready for the downturn that’s likely to come. And I’m very hopeful and I’m very encourged by what the chancellors have been doing to make sure that we’re in the right position when that happens.”
UMass Amherst tuition and fees have increased by over $2,000 since 2015.
Speakers and students in the crowd voiced concerns that Manning missed the mark.
Blythe White, scheduled student speaker and CEPA member, said she struggles under the weight of her undergraduate loans.
“I know that I will have to find a job as soon as possible after I graduate, because my parents have staked their house on my education being worthwhile,” she said to the trustees. ”[But] there is a very real possibility that I will not be able to afford to finish my bachelor’s degree, and the loans I will still have to pay back will have been for nothing.”
As the meeting continued, UMass Student Government Association President Timmy Sullivan unexpectedly jumped to the microphone.
“Chair Manning you’re either a liar or you’re grossly uninformed, because we do have a student debt crisis in this state,” he said.
“If you can’t see that, or you won’t admit that to yourself, the board and your students, I have no faith in your leadership,” he added.
Eve Weinbaum, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors in Amherst, advocated for the trustees to back the Fund Our Future campaign based around legislation the Massachusetts Teachers Association hopes to pass by May 2019 to increase public education spending by more than $1.5 billion a year.
While commending Fund Our Future as a long-term solution to the debt crisis, Anneta Argyres, president of the UMass Boston Professional Staff Union, argued short-term changes are needed in the meantime.
Argyres asked the trustees to reconsider a hike in parking fees at UMass Boston. She argued that the higher fees, due to the construction of a new parking garage, will make it more difficult for commuters to pursue an education.
“We already have students at UMass Boston who build their whole academic career around classes that only meet two days a week, so they can limit the amount they have to pay in parking fees,” Argyres said.
When asked if the trustees would review the issue that day, Manning said it must go through committee and be “voted and vetted” before it’s brought before the trustees.
During the meeting, UMass President Marty Meehan lauded each campus and the system as a whole for recent successes.
The UMass Amherst College of Engineering was named the best public engineering school in New England by the U.S. News & World Report. UMass Dartmouth broke ground on new residence halls. UMass Lowell hosted Oprah Winfrey for its Chancellor’s Speaker Series, and with her help raised over $3 million in student scholarships. UMass Boston received $5 million from New Balance to create a new sports leadership program.
UMass Medical School was given the Association of American Medical Colleges Curricular Innovation Award for its opioid training program. And UMass Law has the third highest bar passage rate in the state, behind Harvard University and Boston University.
“We have committed to continuous improvement in oversight and accountability measures [as a whole system], which will be necessary if we’re going to thrive and remain affordable to students in the current higher education marketplace,” Meehan added.
The muffled voices of students protesting outside the chapel could be heard inside the board meeting.
“Hey hey, ho ho, student debt has got to go,” they shouted.
On Thursday afternoon, Lindsay Sabadosa, representative-elect for the 1st Hampshire District, invited CEPA members to share their concerns at an on-campus training for individuals who are on course to join the Legislature on Jan. 2.
“We wanted [to do] something that stresses we’re willing to work with them,” Gabriel Adams-Keane, UMass senior and CEPA member, said as he hauled a box of olive branches and anonymous student testimonials into an elevator.
On their break from training, the soon-to-be lawmakers gathered around the students to take an olive branch and read the testimonials scrawled and printed on strips of paper. Adams-Keane wasn’t sure exactly how many testimonials were in the box, but he guessed it was between 40 and 50.
“It felt really important that the students have an opportunity to talk to us,” Sabadosa said. “I am 100 percent about how we get people involved with legislators,” she added.
“I think this is what democracy looks like,” said Jo Comerford, state senator-elect in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District.