Beacon Hill to Public Higher Ed: “Privatize!”

Commentary from PHENOM member Ben Taylor on PHENOM’s blog

The agenda on Beacon Hill for Public Higher Education is becoming crystal clear: privatize, privatize, privatize. Dire warnings of a near 2 billion dollar deficit were used to ram through harsh cuts to nearly every aspect of the public sector. Public Higher Education was among the victims of these cuts. Fiscal 2012 has hit the public higher education system particularly hard: we absorbed $70 million in cuts, and unfunded contract obligations ($12 million in FY 2011 and $25 million FY 2012), in part by raising fees to our students dramatically (UMass, $26 million, State University, $25.5 million, Community Colleges, $30 million).  Our budget allocations are below those 2006 baselines set when the federal stimulus package was passed in early 2009. And the costs to our students, who are already burdened with work and debt, continue to climb.

However, as soon as the ink dried on the FY 2012 budget, we were informed that the state had received hundreds of millions of dollars ($460 million, to be precise) in additional revenues above projections for this year. Rather than using some of this surplus to restore the draconian cuts to PHE, Beacon Hill wasted some $25 million on a sales tax holiday, and is socking most of the rest into the rainy day fund. In short, the ‘dire’ necessity for sharp cuts was falsely inflated, and students, staff and faculty are once again being forced to foot the bill.

The effect for students is overcrowded classes and a staggering student debt burden. The average student in MA is now buried under more than $24,000 in student debt by the time they graduate, giving MA the dubious distinction of having the 15th highest student debt burden in the country. The change made last year allowing campuses to retain tuition from out-of-state students fits perfectly with the cuts rammed through. This change incentivizes, indeed, it practically forces campuses to aggressively recruit higher paying out-of-state students to cover the hole made by constantly declining state appropriations, leaving more and more needy in-state student high and dry.

The net result of this year’s cut is that the process of privatizing Public Higher Education in Massachusetts has taken another large step forward. When adjusted for inflation, state appropriations for PHE have been slashed by nearly 42% since 2001. Fully half of those cuts have occurred since Deval Patrick stepped into the Governor’s mansion. The trend of privatization is accelerating under the tutelage of Gov. Patrick and the democrat majority house and senate. Clearly a politics of partnership with Beacon Hill is proving to be a failed strategy. In the absence of mass popular pressure from the 500,000 stake-holders (students, staff, faculty alumni and families) of MA Public Higher Education, this trend will not only continue, it will continue to accelerate. We must organize, and we must organize now.

In light of the states significant revenue increases we should make a unified call for a supplemental appropriation to alleviate some of the burden on the campuses and our students. We should demand full restoration of the cuts. But certainly a minimum appropriation should be $25 million, the cost of the tax holiday.  If they have $25 million to spend on a tax holiday then surely they have $25 million to invest in public higher education.

-Ben Taylor

UMass Amherst Undergrad