This morning, a panel of our PHENOMenal members testified before the Joint Committee on Revenue in support of H3933, the Fair Share Constitutional Amendment. We were thrilled to see such a packed room.

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Here is their testimony from earlier today:

 

Natalie Higgins | PHENOM Executive Director | UMass Amherst Alum

 

Good morning. My name is Natalie Higgins. I am the Executive Director of PHENOM (the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts), which unites students, staff, faculty, alumni, administrators, and the larger community to advocate for well-funded, affordable, accessible, well-staffed, and democratically governed public higher education in Massachusetts. PHENOM is a proud member of Raise Up Massachusetts and this Fall our members gathered more than 1,500 signatures in support of the Fair Share Constitutional Amendment. I personally gathered hundreds of signatures because I believe so strongly in this Amendment and what it could mean for public higher education in Massachusetts. 

I would be able to go to UMass Amherst tuition free. This was everything that my parents had hoped for. But shortly after, we got the bill, and we learned the hard truth that public higher education in Massachusetts was so underfunded, that schools have had to raise fees to make up the difference.

I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents, while determined to give me more opportunities than they ever had, did not know how to prepare to get me into and through college. My family was a typical working class family, struggling to make ends meet. They were relieved that they wouldn’t have to save for my college, since I tested well from a really young age. But when it came to picking a college, we faced the difficult reality that private colleges are really expensive, even with financial aid. So we looked at public schools — which are supposed to be the affordable and accessible option, particularly for low-income first-generation students. I received a letter that I qualified for the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship and I would be able to go to UMass Amherst tuition free. This was everything that my parents had hoped for. But shortly after, we got the bill, and we learned the hard truth that public higher education in Massachusetts was so underfunded, that schools have had to raise fees to make up the difference.

Still UMass Amherst was the most affordable option, and we agreed, if I could graduate in three years (I had already completed a year’s worth of credits in high school) that I would go to UMass and my parents would take out loans to cover what was left after private scholarships. They took out over $30,000 in loans over the three years I was at UMass. If I had graduated with that debt, I would have never been able to go to law school. I wish my story was unique, but I honestly believe, I am one of the lucky ones, even with six figures of student debt that continues to grow with interest every month.

As I said, I am not alone in this. Last Spring PHENOM released a report by Anastasia Wilson, a Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at UMass Amherst: The Causes and Consequences of Mounting Student Debt in Massachusetts. The findings are troubling. Public colleges students in Massachusetts are more likely to borrow student loan debt and more likely to have larger debt loads than their peers at private higher education institutions. Between 1987 and 2010, tuition and fees at Massachusetts public 4-year institutions rose 229%. Massachusetts ranks 11th in the nation of the highest student loan debt burdens, with the average debt of $29,391. Cumulatively, Massachusetts residents lose over $2.5 billion a year is forgone savings and equity due to our student loan debt.

Just last week, Young Invincibles released their report cards on state public higher education funding. And guess what. Massachusetts, a state that prides itself on being a leader in education, got an F. Here are some highlights: Tuition and fees at our 2 and 4-year public institutions are above the national average. State spending per student fell 23% since the recession. The gap in degree attainment for African Americans has risen six points since 2007 to 21% placing us fifth in the nation. For Hispanics, that gap increased 11 points to 30%, placing us third in the nation. These are not the rankings I want my state to be leading. 

We have so far to go to build the public higher education system we deserve in Massachusetts. The new funding from the Fair Share Amendment will give us the opportunity to begin that work. We believe that the top earners in the state must pay their fair share in order to ensure we have an affordable and accessible public higher education system that also pays its staff and faculty fair and equitable wages.

You also see the underfunding in the faculty at community colleges. Upwards of 80% of courses at our community colleges are taught by part-time, contingent labor. And this not only hurts the workers, but students as well, who look to their professors for extra guidance and mentorship, particularly first-generation students like myself. We also see funding for our public higher education institutions increasingly tied to performance-based measures, which hurts the schools who serve regions with higher rates of poverty and first-generation college students, who might not take the traditional path through college. 

We have so far to go to build the public higher education system we deserve in Massachusetts. The new funding from the Fair Share Amendment will give us the opportunity to begin that work. We believe that the top earners in the state must pay their fair share in order to ensure we have an affordable and accessible public higher education system that also pays its staff and faculty fair and equitable wages. We hope that you will release H3933 favorably out of Committee and that each of you will vote to move this ballot initiative forward at the Constitutional Convention.

 
Max Page | Faculty, UMass Amherst | PHENOM Treasurer

 

Good morning.  As the son of a UMass Amherst professor and a public school principal, as a professor at UMass Amherst myself, as a father whose children attend the public schools I once attended, I am pleased to be here to argue for this progressive tax amendment that would allow us to finally create the debt-free, high-quality public higher education system our children deserve and which we have, to our common shame, failed to build.

Well, here’s an interesting fact: my campus, UMass Amherst, has more Pell-grant-eligible students than Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Smith, and Williams College – combined.

Who educates the working and middle classes of Massachusetts?  There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how Harvard and Amherst and Williams Colleges are working hard to recruit more low-income students.  Well, here’s an interesting fact: my campus, UMass Amherst, has more Pell-grant-eligible students than Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Smith, and Williams College – combined.   For all that there is to admire about our private institutions, they do not educate the working and middle classes of this Commonwealth.  We do.  Your public colleges and universities.  

Our students deserve to graduate without debt, so that they are not shackled to their loans into their 50s or 60s.  So that they can buy a home or a car, or start a family, and pursue the vocation they are called to.  President Obama has called for debt-free public higher education as the natural evolution of public education that once stopped at sixth-grade and now demands more than a high school diploma.  He has been followed by all of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the Governors of Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and the mayors of Chicago and Philadelphia.  But in Massachusetts?  “There’s no money,” we have been told, over and over again.

The amendment before you would eliminate that excuse. If you and ultimately the voters pass this progressive tax amendment, we would have enough money to make some part of public college and universities debt-free.  Just like K-12 education, public higher education should be a right of all our citizens, yes, so they can be more economically successful, but also so that they can lead fuller lives as parents, neighbors, and citizens.

It has meant campuses where up to 80% of the instructors are part-time, without benefits, pay, or job security to allow them to be the educators they want to be.  Those public servants deserve better, and our students deserve better.

Second question: Don’t our students deserve to attend colleges and universities that have sufficient faculty and staff to provide a high quality education, and don’t depend upon the exploitation of adjunct faculty?  

One of the wealthiest states in the union, with a proud history of public education, should not be at the bottom of the fifty states in its support of public higher education.  It has meant that we have delayed the construction of modern campuses.  It has meant campuses where up to 80% of the instructors are part-time, without benefits, pay, or job security to allow them to be the educators they want to be.  Those public servants deserve better, and our students deserve better.

The Fair Share Amendment – or as I prefer to call it, the Modest Tax on Multi-Millionaires In Order to Build the Commonwealth Our People Deserve – is our best means for raising revenue.   If we ask just about 15,000 of our wealthiest citizens to pay a bit more in taxes only on their yearly income above one million a year, we can invest in creating a public higher education system worthy of our Commonwealth.

 

Tom Goodkind | Staff, UMass Boston | President, Professional Staff Union

My name is Tom Goodkind; I’ve been the machinist at UMass Boston for over thirty years, building scientific research equipment in the upper-level garage, which was finally closed in 2006, several years after having been declared “in imminent danger of collapse.”

I can remember the heady days of nearly adequate state funding and the beginning of the gradual slide towards privatization. And I’ve seen the University employ numerous strategies to meet the destructive decline in state funding.

There’s been an attempt to “wring efficiencies” out of the system, mainly by reducing the staff keeping our offices and buildings running by 6% across the UMass system while enrollments have surged by 20%. This is the efficiency of an inverted pyramid, which is not a stable object.

There was the long period of deferred maintenance. Call me at 617-287-6515 for a personal tour of how that worked in the UMass Boston garages. Please remember to bring your hard hat.

Then there was private fund-raising, which despite a laudable increase has produced a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ve lost and what we need.

There’s been an attempt to “wring efficiencies” out of the system, mainly by reducing the staff keeping our offices and buildings running by 6% across the UMass system while enrollments have surged by 20%. This is the efficiency of an inverted pyramid, which is not a stable object.

There’s been the emphasis on out-of-state and international students, thereby degrading Morrill’s 1862 land-grant initiative, nowhere formulated on higher moral ground than at UMass Boston in the dream of our urban mission.

We’ve attempted to grow out of the problem, which has required more space. And creating more space has driven University debt to the limit. Who pays for all that debt? Our poor, beleaguered students.

The “Fair Share” Amendment is just such an alternative. It’s a start at reversing the root cause of the structural funding crisis our public University has faced for the last twenty years, a slow-motion crisis which cannot be resolved through growth, fund-raising, efficiency, chiseling employees, or squeezing blood from the student stone.

Which brings us to UMass’s main strategy for addressing the decline in state funding, and the main symptom of the growing privatization of our once-public University system: an ever-deeper well of student debt. It’s time to declare that well dry and look for sustainable alternatives.

The “Fair Share” Amendment is just such an alternative. It’s a start at reversing the root cause of the structural funding crisis our public University has faced for the last twenty years, a slow-motion crisis which cannot be resolved through growth, fund-raising, efficiency, chiseling employees, or squeezing blood from the student stone.

Most of us now acknowledge the multi-decade transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, with regressive tax reform as one of its key instruments. It’s time to reverse that devastating trend and restore some balance to our system of raising revenue for those things we hold dear in Massachusetts—above all, for education. It no longer takes courage to stand up for something like the Fair Share Amendment—it requires only common sense.

 

 

Marven-rhode Hyppolite | Student, UMass Dartmouth

 

During my senior year at Umass Dartmouth, I retook two courses from my freshman year. I applied for graduation and was approved to do so. Prior to crossing the stage, I was told that I would need to take first 2 then 3 courses over the summer. I finished the courses only to find out that I had taken the wrong courses and that I would now need to return for a full semester.

What’s more — I was told this a week before classes were set to begin! I had to tell the jobs I applied for that I did not infact have my degree. I was effectively set back a year.

What’s more — I was told this a week before classes were set to begin! I had to tell the jobs I applied for that I did not infact have my degree. I was effectively set back a year. I understand that there is a certain degree of personal responsibility on my part to make sure that I graduate on time; however I am not the only this has happened to and the students most at risk to fall through the cracks are students like myself who are low income and are first generation college students.

I believe the Fair Share Amendment will give us the funding necessary to start to fix the problems I have seen as a student in the system.