PHENOM Responds to the Release of the Higher Education Finance Commission and the Vision Project Reports


October 28, 2014

Contact: Natalie Higgins (978-227-8473,

Max Page (413-219-7633;


The Legislature charged the Higher Education Finance Commission with defining the requirements of a high-quality system of public higher education and a sustainable, rational model for financing the system in a way that increases access and affordability in an effective and efficient manner.

PHENOM strongly endorses the report’s emphasis on a continued reinvestment in public higher education — in basic operating funds, in capital projects, and in financial aid — and hopes the Legislature moves quickly on these recommendations. PHENOM, however, finds worrisome the overemphasis on “performance funding” models, and thinks there are better models for securing affordability and access to our public colleges and universities.


Pointing out that our state ranks 28th in the nation in state support per student and 48th in state support for financial aid, the report argues for dramatically increased funding for our public campuses and their students. The $475 million in additional state funding over the next 5 years would have a significant positive impact. We believe this funding should be allocated to allow our campuses to create more full-time, tenure system faculty positions, decrease the reliance on underpaid adjuncts, create additional staff positions to provide needed support for students to increase retention rates, and freeze or, better, decrease tuition and fees, which are among the highest in the country. Still, even with an additional $475 million, the funding level, when adjusted for inflation, would only bring us back to slightly above FY 01 levels.

As PHENOM has pointed out in previous reports, there are many persuasive economic, social, political, and moral reasons to dramatically invest in public higher education: lowering the achievement gap, allowing more 1st generation students to go to college, providing the support needed for them to succeed, staffing our campuses with adequate numbers of excellent full-time  faculty and staff. We hope the funding recommendations in this report become a baseline, such that a continued improved economy could allow for larger increases.


While PHENOM welcomes the recommendation for a dramatic increase in financial aid, this reinforces the idea of a high-fee, high-aid model.  We look at other states such as Tennessee, Oregon, and Mississippi which are experimenting with various approaches to make at least some years of public higher education free. [See also Martha Coakley’s proposal that all unmet need at community colleges be paid for.] PHENOM testified before the Commission about a novel approach to extend 50/50: Use the state’s 50% to pay for the first 2 years of college and then apply a “pay it forward” model to the next two years, where payment is income-contingent and does not begin until sometime after leaving college. The student debt crisis demands something that goes beyond increased financial aid, a new model that guarantees access and affordability. We hope the legislature will seize the opportunity to make Massachusetts a leader in this.


The report also calls for rationalizing tuition and fees – to reverse the unique situation in Massachusetts where fees are many times the cost of tuition. There are numerous good reasons to do this, and need not be tied to tuition retention. We see pros and cons to tuition retention, with the major concern of undermining future efforts to increase public funding and steps toward lower student costs.


We remain skeptical of “performance funding” as a way to achieve the goals of increased quality, access, and success. As PHENOM testified, high stakes performance measures encourage gaming the system to achieve desired results, tend to measure only things that are easily measurable, and punish rather than motivate campuses to make improvements. The very logic of improving quality through this kind of system is flawed. If we want to increase graduation rates for minority students at a small community college, depriving the campus of funds for failing to reach certain benchmarks will not enhance the college’s ability to achieve its goal.

But despite these concerns, we are very positive about the report, and look forward to it leading to exciting and productive discussion and action by the Legislature.


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