PHENOM Testimony to Ways and Means Committees

phenombumperFEBRUARY 26, 2013     Most people recognize public higher education as a means of upward mobility for individual Massachusetts residents.  Legislators are also keenly aware that it is a top economic development strategy.   [See this detailed and compelling economic analysis.]

Unprecedented cuts to the public higher education system over the last decade have, however, undermined both the private and public good that is public higher education.  This has led to dramatic increases in costs to our students, a shift from full-time to part-time faculty, and a growing problem of deferred maintenance (now totaling over $4 billion and growing).  But in every crisis lies an opportunity.

As we slowly emerge from the recession, as the student debt crisis has grabbed headlines, and as the inadequacy of a mere high school diploma has become clear – this is the time for a major reinvestment in public higher education.  The Governor has begun this important conversation, with a particular focus on financial aid, equitable funding for our campuses, and the revenues to pay for these; we hope the Ways and Means Committees will take the next significant steps in bringing these ideas to fruition.

PHENOM believes the upcoming budget should not merely slow the decline of public higher education, but take a significant step toward moving it to the priority position it should hold in the Commonwealth’s budget.

Our expectations for the next year’s budget include:

1.  Revenue dedicated to public higher education over and above current allocations.  This revenue should be substantial, should be derived from a progressive source, and should be targeted to investing in our people.  Those able to pay more should be asked to do so.  When framed as an investment in our future, revenue to pay for education will be supported much more than the pundits tell us.  We know that politically, it is hard to raise revenues more than once every few years – so a large increase makes political as well as economic sense.  As you discuss the need for revenue to repair our aging transportation infrastructure, we suggest you consider that public higher education represents a large portion of the state’s physical infrastructure, as well as its human infrastructure.  Bridges and roads are important; but our human capital is our bridge to a prosperous future

2.   We believe that the budget should aim to reverse the course of dramatic disinvestment in base funding for public higher education.  As we’ve moved toward less state investment over the past two decades, we’ve essentially imposed an ever increasing tax on our students, their parents, and the economy.  We know of far too many students who have had to interrupt their education – sometimes temporarily, often permanently – and believe we should set a modest goal of having students and their parents split the cost of attending our public higher education institutions with the state — as in the 50/50 plan proposed by UMass President Caret.  This is insufficient for a public system, but is a step that should be enacted for now.

3.   We are calling for a major reinvestment in public higher education in order to improve the quality of the services we offer to our students.  The most significant investment, proven to improve the quality of education, should be the hiring of more full-time faculty and staff.  The system has moved rapidly toward being staffed by adjunct faculty, who have neither pensions and health insurance, nor the time to teach and nurture our students as they deserve. The greatest number of adjuncts are in the community colleges where two-thirds of incoming students need developmental education and serious adult mentoring. We need a program to rebuild the ranks of faculty and staff who have the time, background, and compensation to become long-term teachers, researchers, and mentors to our students.

4.    Access and affordability are critical concerns to our students and their parents.  We are asking for a game-changing commitment to maintaining quality while stopping the growth in tuition and fees.  We need to freeze tuition and fees, and develop new programs (such as the Finish Line Grant – a free year to help draw low-income students to college, help them graduate, and live with less debt) that will make public higher education dramatically more affordable.  But we do not want to run our colleges and universities into the ground doing so.  We must pair a freeze in tuition and fees with a major reinvestment in campus operating budgets.

Massachusetts leads the nation in the quality of its high school graduates.  We need to provide them with the ability to continue that top-notch experience at a public college or university.  That means college must be affordable, accessible and of the highest quality.  PHENOM and its members around the state are most appreciative that Ways and Means Committees members are taking the time to hear from residents around the state.  We know of your commitment to education, and we look forward to working with you to support all the students and potential students looking to succeed as individuals while helping to grow the Massachusetts economy.