Thursday, February 2, 2023

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NEW STUDY: Decades of Declining State Financial Aid, Overly Complex Process Putting Mass. Public College Students Deep in Debt


Report Highlights How Chronic Disinvestment and a Complex Financial Aid System Have Widened Educational Gaps in Massachusetts

BOSTON – Decades of declining state financial aid and an increasingly complex array of small grants, scholarships, and tuition waivers are leaving Massachusetts public college students deep in debt, and worsening educational gaps in the state, according to a new report released today.

The study by the Hildreth Institute, titled ‘Rising Barriers, Shrinking Aid,’ examined state-funded financial aid available to students in Massachusetts between 2001 and 2021. It found that state financial aid per student steadily declined over the last two decades, eroding the purchasing power of state grants and scholarships. The average amount of state aid students receive now covers only 12 percent of the cost to attend public college in Massachusetts.


“Many states have updated their funding systems to increase affordability and close achievement gaps, but Massachusetts has lagged. Over the past two decades, students in Massachusetts have seen their access to aid dwindle, with state-funded financial aid being cut by 47 percent,” said Bahar Akman Imboden, PhD., Managing Director of the Hildreth Institute and author of the report. “Unfortunately,  until there is a plan for significant and long-term investment in state-funded financial aid, the state’s commitment to quality public education will continue to end at grade 12.” 


The report found that in an effort to distribute limited funding in a targeted manner, the state has created more than 40 different small grants, scholarships, and tuition waivers. While well-intentioned, this has created an unnecessarily complex and confusing financial aid system to navigate. The process itself ends up creating barriers for the students who stand to benefit the most from state-funded financial aid and access to public higher education.


The data analyzed in the report, provided by the Department of Higher Education, covers annual financial aid disbursements between 2001 and 2021. While newer data is not yet available, last year’s state budget did include increased funding for student financial aid, an important step to reverse the decades-long trend of disinvestment. The report contends that for Massachusetts to truly reach its key educational priorities, the student financial aid system needs to see continued, significant investment that addresses students’ unmet financial needs and helps simplify the path to receiving financial aid. Only then will the process of getting a credential or degree from the state’s public higher education system become more accessible and attainable.


“What we see time and time again with our students and families is that when the financial aid award letters arrive they are complex to understand and are filled with loans (both federal and now state), still leaving families with significant gaps that they simply can’t cover. We are asking students as well as families to take on larger burdens of debt to make up for the shortfalls by state funding, shrinking state financial aid, and rising costs of tuition,” said Peter Barros, Executive Director of La Vida Scholars,  a non-profit college prep program in Lynn working to equip low-income, high-achieving students with the resources needed to enter great colleges. “Around the world our state is considered a global leader for higher education, just not for its own residents.”


Additional findings of the report include the following:

  • The majority of public higher education students in Massachusetts are left with a large financial gap: 8 out of 10 students at the state’s four-year public institutions have $12,000 in unmet financial need each year; and 9 out of 10 community college students have $8,557 in unmet need each year.
  • Students at the state’s community colleges receive half of the financial assistance that their peers at four-year public and private institutions receive.
  • Over the past two decades, the number of students taking out loans to attend a four-year public university in Massachusetts jumped by a staggering 105 percent, while the number of students borrowing to attend a community college increased by 45 percent.
  • Massachusetts students now shoulder the 5th largest average debt burden in the nation.
  • Lack of funding, coupled with the complex financial aid system, negatively impacts students from underprivileged backgrounds and first-generation students the most.


“While I’m grateful to qualify for financial aid, it covers such a small portion of my costs to go to college I have to juggle my courses as a full-time student with a 30-hour workweek just to make it,” said Jennifer Cabrera, a first-generation student at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a policy fellow at uAspire, national nonprofit ensuring that all young people have the financial information and resources to find an affordable path to and through college. “More aid would mean more students like me – those of us who are forced to work many hours a week just to afford books and course materials – would be able to enroll, persist, and graduate.”


Research from the Hildreth Institute last year found that chronic state underfunding of public higher education in Massachusetts has led to widespread increases in tuition and fees – with those at the state’s community colleges increasing by 52 percent and those at four-year public universities increasing by 59 percent over the past 20 years. During these same years, average household income in the state rose only 13 percent.


According to this latest report, most students report that growing unmet need – the cost of attending college outside of tuition and fees – is the reason getting a degree is becoming increasingly unattainable. The new study finds that tuition and fees only make up 24 percent of the total cost of attendance at community colleges, and 40 percent at 4-year universities.


Other costs students must find a way to afford include books, supplies, computer and Internet access, and living costs like room, board, transportation, and health and personal care. Without  adequate financial aid that takes the full cost of attendance into account, an increasing share of students are left with larger unmet financial needs, leaving them with no choice but to take out student loans or abandon their pursuit of higher education altogether.


“Without adequate state funding for the institutions and our students, we’re going to continue to see the true cost of public higher education climb while our students are forced to take on more and more crippling debt,” said Robert Hildreth, founder and Board Chair of the Hildreth Institute. “Inadequate aid is not only plunging students into debt, it’s putting up insurmountable barriers for our most underrepresented populations. If we are serious about addressing the inequities of our economy and society, we must start with significant funding to reverse the damage done by decades of chronic disinvestment in our public institutions and the communities they serve.”


The new report makes several recommendations for reforms to the state’s financial aid system, including the following:

  • Massachusetts should make a strong commitment to reducing the dependency on student loans by eliminating students’ unmet financial need through an expansion and strengthening of the existing MASSGrant Plus program.
  • Cost calculations should be moved beyond tuition and fees to include the true cost of attendance.
  • Once a large-scale and reliable commitment grant is established, the state should take steps to simplify, consolidate, and streamline the existing overlapping small grants, scholarships, and tuition-waivers. The state should also audit these programs to ensure they are successfully helping the populations they were designed to serve. 
  • State leaders should reverse decades of chronic disinvestment from public higher education, and reinvest in public higher education at levels that ensure tuition and fees cover less than a quarter of an institution’s costs.


Without providing students with a clear pathway to higher education, the state is further cementing systemic inequities within the system of higher education,” continued Akman Imboden. “The passing of the Fair Share Amendment provides the state with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse decades of chronic disinvestment from public higher education. It’s time to recommit to the goal of giving all Massachusetts residents the resources needed to attain a quality public higher education.”


The full report can be accessed here and a fact sheet on the report can be found here.


The Hildreth Institute is a research and policy center dedicated to restoring the promise of higher education as an engine of upward mobility for all. We are committed to fixing the broken college financing system by promoting innovative policy solutions at the federal and state levels, in order to invest in higher education while eliminating the burden of student debt. We research, develop, and promote solutions for changes in public policies and institutional financial practices that will reduce costs to students and improve quality. Learn more at