PHENOM Helps Win State Funding and Fee Freeze

By Ken Haar, Westfield State University


Two years of high-attendance advocacy days spur state government to act. Nicole Ouimette (PHENOM President and student at Holyoke Community College) addresses the Gardner Auditorium crowd on March 5, 2013. Photo credit: Massachusetts Teachers Assn.

In this year’s budget battle, the legislature and the governor dramatically reversed a decades-long trend of reducing spending on public higher education.

This happened for a number of reasons, with an improving economy among them. But other key factors included

  • educating the governor and the legislature about the difficulty our students and campuses face with rising debt loads and declining state support
  • Mobilizing thousands of people to contact their legislators
  • Uniting all the different advocates with a common message and strategy.

Many efforts (see timeline) worked to move public higher education from a back-burner issue to a high priority. Assumptions about the system morphed from neglect, which left campuses to seek funding wherever they could, to acclaim for higher education as a vital cog in the machine of economic development. But at its root, public higher education remained a system desperately in need of attention and support.

What was different this year was the unified message and strategy adopted by all the public higher education advocates, which built upon years of patient and determined work by PHENOM—on the campuses, in the streets and with political figures.

The Public Higher Education Summit Group (convened by PHENOM in 2011) decided to try to influence the budget at an earlier point in the process. The Summit Group called a broad list of public higher education stakeholders together at UMass Boston in November 2012. That group discussed many issues from budget line items, to financial aid, to deferred maintenance, to organizing strategy.StateSupport20002012

The Summit group took the results of this stakeholder meeting and laid out an agenda featuring UMass President Robert Caret’s 50/50 plan whereby campuses would commit to freezing student fees if the legislature appropriated sufficient funds. In addition, progressive tax reforms would provide the needed funding for increased financial aid and higher capital expenditures on deferred maintenance.

The advocates then set up a series of meetings with key public officials in the Executive Office of Education, the Department of Higher Education, the office of Administration and Finance, and with influential stakeholders like Dan O’Connell from the Massachusetts Competitiveness Partnership.

Our students, those most directly impacted, were especially important in laying out in stark detail their struggles with rising fees and staggering debt.

Public FTE EnrollmentEach segment of the system pressed for the same agenda at these meetings—focusing on support for high quality institutions, a fee freeze and more financial aid.

The governor’s budget proposal, released in January, featured increases in campus budgets and a huge increase in financial aid funded by progressive tax reform.

The Summit group’s focus then moved to the legislature, where meetings were held with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey, with Education Committee Co-Chairs Senator Michael Moore and Representative Tom Sannicandro, and with Senate President Therese Murray and Senate Ways and Means Chair Stephen Brewer.

At the same time, students took the lead in organizing the March 5th Public Higher Education Advocacy Day. The event was a dramatic success, with 600 people bringing to the whole legislature the details of their campuses’ needs and the students’ personal stories of struggling to fulfill their educational dreams.

The message was out there, the power of the coalition of stakeholders was on display, but the actual budget numbers had to be wrestled into place.

The convergence on a budget settlement came from two directions. Speaker DeLeo expressed a firm commitment to hold public higher education as a key priority, and this was reflected in the budget passed by the House. Meanwhile leaders of UMass, the State Universities, and the Community Colleges held strategic meetings with legislative leaders to hammer out a budget deal that would involve a commitment to freeze fees.

When the Senate budget numbers came in lower than the House, the conference committee became our focus. Senator Michael Moore’s letter to the committee, signed by 27 (of 40) senators, supported the generous House budget numbers and went a long way toward securing a favorable allocation.

Success this year on the budget, on a funding formula for the community colleges, and on a fee freeze for all state colleges and universities relied on a highly collaborative effort. The varied constituencies stuck together, relayed a common message, and heard it resonate with the public who conveyed it back to our elected officials.

Even though we are still behind many other states, Massachusetts has made a dramatic and historic gesture aimed at fulfilling the promise of a high quality, accessible and affordable public higher education system. We have turned the ship 180 degrees. PHENOM’s first three goals are becoming Massachusetts state government’s goals–fund public higher education so it can serve the Commonwealth; make higher education affordable; make higher education accessible to all.

It is a good time to congratulate everyone involved! And it is also a good time to engage our stakeholders again, hone our message, and sustain the momentum this fall. We must continue to press for higher budgets (based on the 50/50 model and the Community College formula) and work to increase financial aid, capital grants and deferred maintenance spending. Already, the Speaker has signaled his intention to move forward with this agenda.

PHENOM’s multi-year, multi-prong strategy of providing research and data, mobilizing at the grassroots, and building unity of a broad coalition paid off. Our campuses will have additional funds; students will get at least some relief from ever-rising fees next year.


Timeline: State funding 

February 2007 PHENOM establishes principles; circulates White Paper
October 2007 PHENOM releases report on the Affordability Crisis
2008 – 2012 PHENOM organizes many call-in days, public hearings, State House rallies
April 2009 PHENOM produces discussion paper on Free Community College
March 2010 Formation of Public Higher Education Caucus in Legislature
October 2010 PHENOM Walk Across the State shines spotlight on public higher education
January 2011 PHENOM convenes Summit Group which now meets monthly
Fall 2011 Public Higher Education Caucus brings dozens of legislators to visit different campuses
December 2011 UMass President Caret first proposes 50/50 funding split, later linked to fee freeze
September 2012 Department of Higher Education’s release of Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Public Higher Education
May 2012 Prof. Michael Ash’s study Economic Impact of Investment in Public Higher Education in Massachusetts released
March 2012 Largest Advocacy Day in memory
November 2012 Summit Group convenes higher education advocates
March 2013 An even larger Advocacy Day
July 2013 Governor Patrick signs largest higher education allocation in years