The University of Massachusetts announced recently that it’s putting together a group of trustees to size up the system’s financial health and, promises President Marty Meehan, study ways to avoid hiking tuition and fees next year. At the very least, he says, they’ll hold costs to the rate of inflation.

Too bad Meehan and UMass leaders weren’t as concerned about the pocketbooks of students and families this year.

Instead they dished up an increase — 2.5 percent for tuition and fees charged to undergraduates who live in state, or $360 per student per year. Those trekking in from out of state will pay a bit more. Grad students from Massachusetts won’t see a tuition increase at all.

It may sound like small dollars until one considers just how much taking classes full time at the flagship UMass campus in Amherst costs these days. Tuition, fees, room and board for an in-state kid runs $29,400 per year. That’s the bottom line for a student from Beverly, Gloucester, Amesbury or Methuen.

That it costs so much to study at the state’s public colleges is astounding. That UMass leaders seem so cavalier about the price tag, assurances of a task force notwithstanding, is something well beyond frustrating. Had holding the line on tuition and fees been so important to Meehan and chancellors of the UMass campuses, maybe they wouldn’t have upped everyone this fall. Instead they continue to squeeze a captive audience whose members have little recourse and not enough sway on Beacon Hill to force UMass to live within its means.

Was this predictable? Sure it was and not just because a “modest” tuition hike is a well-worn maneuver by UMass. Heading into long negotiations over the state budget, some in the Senate wanted to impose a fee and tuition freeze on the system — a plan to protect students and their families that Meehan et al wanted no part of. The Merrimack Valley’s former congressman got his way, and the forced austerity measure didn’t survive budget talks with the House.

Instead, UMass got $558 million from Beacon Hill — 3% more than last year, though not as much as Meehan sought — to apply toward an overall budget of $3.5 billion — more than 4% more than last year. And, oh yeah, there’s more from students and their families too.

Still, cries from within UMass, especially a group representing professors, staff and others, remain that the Legislature and state “underfund” the university system. In this parallel dimension, Beacon Hill is responsible for the tuition and fee hikes, not the people with their hands on the levers of the university system’s budget.

So, don’t hold your breath that anyone else at UMass will pause very long to consider just how painful $30,000 a year is to students and families from Massachusetts. Robert Manning, president of the trustees, called the increase “reasonable” and “manageable.” Other UMass officials, according to Meehan, are looking for ways to reign in costs and so are unlikely to be sympathetic to those who cannot afford the increase.

And that cohort of people who cannot afford to pay is growing. “Enough is enough — both legislators and UMass officials have a shared responsibility to ensure that all UMass students have access to an affordable, high-quality college education,” Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute, which advocates for making college attainable, told MassLive.

She’s right. This out of control price of attending UMass should be squarely before Meehan, the UMass trustees and lawmakers. It’s long past time for Beacon Hill to take a more forceful approach in figuring out where this will end, if it will end.

For the rest of us and our kids, reciprocal rates at public colleges in other New England states are looking much more interesting. You can get a much better mascot --like maybe a wildcat, catamount or bear — and you don’t even have to leave Hockey East.

 

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