AP NEWS

FSU Forum Raises Alarm for Higher-ed Cost Relief

March 28, 2019

FITCHBURG -- Alexander Ramos Jr. started at Fitchburg State University as a dual-enrollment student in high school. When he was accepted full time, the first-generation college student needed to work up to 30 hours a week because his family couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket. Ramos also had to take out loans.

“It wasn’t enough,” said Ramos, a senior studying political science. “How can colleges expect students to be involved on campus and pay for college expenses at the same time?”

He was one of four students who shared challenges about pursuing their education while juggling finances, which are issues school, city and state leaders say stem from underfunded higher education.

More than 50 people gathered Tuesday at the university for a “Fund Our Future” forum to support state legislation that would increase funding for public higher education.

“Doing well in college is hard enough,” said Fitchburg Rep. Stephan Hay. “We don’t need to increase that.”

The Cherish Act asks for more than $500 million in state funding to control the cost of public higher education and to make improvements on campuses like Fitchburg State.

“This may seem stupendous and excessive, but in reality it is enough,” said Aruna Krishnamurthy, an English studies professor who serves as chapter president of the Massachusetts State College Association union.

The bill looks to establish a five-year schedule beginning next fiscal year to restore funding levels for public colleges, universities and community colleges from fiscal 2001.

Since then, state spending per college student has fallen by about a third, from $12,500 to $8,500.

The Cherish Act also proposes no tuition or fee increases between fiscal 2020 and 2024.

Sen. Joanne Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, introduced the Senate legislation and Reps. Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat, and Paul Mark, a Peru Democrat, offered the House version.

Between the two bills, co-sponsors from the North Central Massachusetts delegation include Hay, Reps. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, Jen Benson, D-Lunenburg, Harold Naughton, D-Clinton, and Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer.

In the 1970s, Fitchburg State’s tuition and fees per semester was about $550. This semester it’s $5,132 and would take about 934 hours working a minimum wage job to support, said Michael Stassen, an adjunct math professor.

As tuition has increased, state funding has decreased and student debt has climbed, he said. About 84 percent of Fitchburg State’s Class of 2016 graduated with an average debt of about $26,600.

Several city and state officials spoke about their own experiences attending the state’s public universities.

Taylor Landry, a legislative aide for Higgins, said she understands the issues students are facing. She attended Fitchburg State and left without a degree, resulting in $10,000 in debt that she is paying off.

Landry added that Higgins, who also attended public universities in state, has about $100,000 in student loan debt.

Mayor Stephen DiNatale said he, his wife, and daughter are all Fitchburg State graduates.

“We know the value of public higher education and the value of Fitchburg State in the community we live in today,” he said.

DiNatale added that the university drives the city’s economic development and is the second largest employer in Fitchburg.

The Massachusetts Teacher’s Association and MSCA sponsored the forum.

Through the “Fund Our Future” campaign, the unions also support a bill called the Promise Act that would update the state’s funding formula for Pre-K-12 schools.

In January, school superintendents and city and state leaders came to Fitchburg State to advocate for more funding for their districts and to support the legislation.

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