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Monday, April 11, 2022

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Report: Massachusetts Middle-Class Shut Out of Public Higher Ed

Decades of disinvestment and rapidly risings tuitions and fees make a degree unattainable for low-to-middle-income households

(BOSTON) – Attaining a degree from a public college or university in Massachusetts is no longer a realistic option for most households in the state. According to a new report from the Massachusetts-based Hildreth Institute, tuition and fees have increased by nearly 60 percent in the past 20 years while median household incomes have risen only 13 percent.

The report spells out in alarming detail how, over the past two decades, Massachusetts has systematically disinvested from the futures of low-to-middle-income families through chronic underfunding of the state’s public higher education system.  Between 2000 and 2020, state funding for public higher education has, after adjusting for inflation, fallen 20 percent – from $10,907 per full-time student to $8,728.

This alarming trend has resulted in community colleges and public universities rapidly raising tuition and fees. Community colleges have increased tuition and fees on average of 52 percent during this time, while the state’s four-year universities have averaged 59 percent increases

“While the state has neglected its obligation to students counting on an affordable public higher education,” said Bahar Akman Imboden, PhD., Managing Director of the Hildreth Institute and author of the report. “Colleges and universities leaned heavily on families for student-generated revenue and the state’s financial aid and scholarships have failed to ease this excessive burden on low- and middle-income students.”

In 2020, the average state aid a student received covered a meager four percent of their tuition and fees – making this aid no longer a factor for most low-to-middle-income families. MASSGrant, the state’s primary need-based grant for students, used to cover 80 percent of a student’s tuition and fees at a state school. Now it covers just 10 percent for those most in need of financial assistance.

With limited financial aid support and annual increases in tuition and fees, low-to-moderate-income students are forced to choose between balancing a heavy work schedule with their courses or taking out student loans to cover unmet need. The average low-to-middle-income student is shouldering $10,000 in unmet need each academic year.

This debt often proves to be too burdensome for many low-to-middle-income families, especially those in communities of color – further exacerbating barriers people of color already face in higher education and in the workforce. In communities of color, only 36 percent of people have a college degree – while those rates reach 50 percent in predominantly white communities.

What has long been considered a critical step toward social and economic mobility in this nation is being held out of reach for Latino and Black and African-American families in Massachusetts, with many being forced to abandon the hope of a college degree for themselves and their children. High debt-burdened low-and-middle-income students who are able to graduate are at a significant disadvantage upon graduation – with hefty loan payments draining their resources, further exacerbating existing economic and racial disparities.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • More students at public colleges and universities take out loans than those at private, not-for-profit schools in Massachusetts
    • 63% of students at public universities have to take out loans
    • 53% of students at private, non-profit universities have to take out loans
  • Students attending state schools are graduating with more debt than their peers at private universities:
    • $24,112 – average student debt at graduation (at a four-year public university)
    • $23,940 – average student debt at graduation (at a four-year private university)
  • All of these burdens are leading to negative enrollment trends that further disenfranchise communities most in need of support and investment:
    • 6.9% drop in undergraduate enrollment at all state public colleges and universities in 2020, followed by a 4.2% drop in 2021
    • Community colleges saw the sharpest rates of declining enrollment – especially among first-year Black and Latino students: seeing a 33% enrollment drop between 2019 and 2020
  • 40% of the total revenue of our four-year public universities comes from tuition and fees because they are unable to rely on adequate state funding
  • Low-and-middle-income students facing unmet college costs are forced to work more than 10-15 hours/week, putting them more at risk of not graduating on-time or at all

Recommendations

These findings point to unmet financial need as the main culprit for persistent achievement gaps. Therefore the Hildreth Institute suggests state officials to seriously consider the framework put forth by H.1339/S.829 An Act to Guarantee Debt-Free Public Higher Education.  This could be immediately implemented by expanding the existing MASSGrant Plus Program, a pilot program created in 2019 as a last-dollar grant to cover unmet need for students attending community college. The program was expanded in 2021 to students attending the state’s four-year universities.

The Hildreth Institute report calls for expanding the program to cover all public higher education students and broadening the scope so students can use it to cover all unmet costs – not solely tuition, fees, and books. Finally, the report calls for sufficient funding for the MASSGrant Plus Program to allow students – especially low-to-middle-class students and students of color – to graduate from a public college or university with little to no student debt.

According to a recent equity analysis done by MassBudget, a debt-free public higher education would provide an affordable degree to 44,000 students of color; 39,000 students from families making less than $30,000/year; 70,000 female students; and 16,000 part-time students.

If the state committed to this expansion of the MASSGrant Plus for students who already qualify, it would cost approximately $771.7 million. To truly recommit to the future of all middle-class students and families, the state should expand the program to all those attending a public university or community college – which would cost approximately $1.015 billion.

“For years, families have been forced to abandon dreams of higher education because of these financial burdens – which have only been exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bob Hildreth, Founder, and President of the Hildreth Institute. “We must recommit to investing in higher education guided by the universal goal that, regardless of their background, all should have the same opportunity to reap the economic and social benefits of a high-quality higher education. Expanding the MASSGrant Plus is the least we can do if we are serious about investing in the future of our middle-class families and communities of color.”

 

 

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Hildreth Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to restoring the promise of higher education as an engine of upward mobility for all. We believe that all students should be able to obtain a high-quality, zero-debt postsecondary education. At Hildreth Institute, we fight for zero-debt college because we believe that student loans are not the right financial aid tool for our students or their families. We need to move to a zero-debt system that makes high-quality college affordable to all, without leaving students mired in 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. Through partnerships with researchers and policy experts, with politically diverse organizations, with policymakers from both major political parties, and with corporate and community leaders, we will build support for transformative change in higher education financing. Hildreth Institute is a member of the national Higher Ed, Not Debt coalition, a campaign of dozens of organizations dedicated to tackling the crippling and ever-growing issue of student loan debt in America, and a part of the Debt-Free Higher Education Coalition, a group of Massachusetts-based organizations that believes that access to debt-free, high-quality public higher education should be a right of every resident in Massachusetts. Our coalition is rooted in those individuals and communities most affected by the inequities of our public higher education system: Black, Latinx, low-income, and first-generation students.