Activists: Tuition hike wrong tack for UMass

Mark Murdy, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, speaks at the board of trustees’ virtual meeting Wednesday to oppose tuition and fee hikes going into effect this fall with Ella Prabhakar, left, a member PHENOM, Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, and other UMass students.

Mark Murdy, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, speaks at the board of trustees’ virtual meeting Wednesday to oppose tuition and fee hikes going into effect this fall with Ella Prabhakar, left, a member PHENOM, Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, and other UMass students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Mark Murdy, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, speaks at the board of trustees’ virtual meeting Wednesday morning to oppose tuition and fee hikes going into effect this fall. UMass students Ella Prabhakar, Riley Campbell and Yongqi Gingrass stand behind him.

Mark Murdy, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, speaks at the board of trustees’ virtual meeting Wednesday morning to oppose tuition and fee hikes going into effect this fall. UMass students Ella Prabhakar, Riley Campbell and Yongqi Gingrass stand behind him. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-11-2024 4:08 PM

Modified: 04-11-2024 4:43 PM


AMHERST — As a University of Massachusetts Amherst doctoral student in physics, Mark Murdy has seen his wages as a graduate employee decline relative to inflation, meaning he, like others who work on campus, is taking home less money.

Amid these financial challenges, Murdy, from Southington, Connecticut, was one of two UMass students granted the opportunity to speak at a board of trustees’ virtual meeting Wednesday morning to oppose tuition and fee hikes going into effect this fall.

“If the university desires more revenue, they can find it in public funding,” Murdy said, as he participated via laptop from the Whitmore Administration Building, where a handful of students behind him held blue signs reading “public college should not be a debt sentence.”

“UMass can push for the Debt-Free Future Act and the Cherish Act, two bills before the State House that could fully fund the UMass system,” Murdy said. “We could then invest in our student body and reverse years of financial strife.”

A similar appeal came from undergraduate Kairo Serna, speaking from a remote workplace, who said that UMass may be a public school, but it’s not serving the public well by using a high-cost, high-aid model that is making education less accessible to students in general. The higher cost to attend UMass may also harm the efforts to keep the campus a refuge for LGBTQ students and students from other marginalized communities who face hostility.

“Economic inequality means racial inequality, and as tuition prices climb, communities of color are hit the hardest despite UMass’ claims that we strive for diversity and equity,” Serna said.

“We must commit to keeping campuses public rather than pushing privatization,” Serna continued. “Do the right thing and don’t move forward with tuition increases.”

Their comments came immediately before trustees unanimously approved the 2.5% increase in tuition for in-state undergraduates for the 2024-2025 academic year to $17,006, adding $415 to the bill of a student on the Amherst campus. Out-of-state undergraduates at the Amherst campus are facing a 3% hike in tuition, a $1,156 increase to $39,693. Students at the Amherst campus will also see a 4.5% increase, to $16,128, for room and board.

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John Hoey, a spokesperson for the UMass president’s office, said that the tuition figures are before financial aid is applied, and that systemwide there are $1 billion in grants and loans offered.

“The net cost of a UMass education has stayed flat,” Hoey said, observing that the average debt for a student upon graduation is steady, and actually going down in relation to inflation, and that a lot of attention is paid toward affordability.

The net price to go to UMass is $2,000 less than the average of other New England public universities and $10,000 less on average than Massachusetts private colleges.

But representatives from the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, or PHENOM, coordinated a small action to coincide with the trustees meeting, renewing their calls for a move toward free tuition for public universities and better conditions for faculty and staff, raising a banner stating “Free College Now” on the ramp to the main entrance at Whitmore.

“We really want to show strong opposition to the tuition and fee hike in this moment,” said Ella Prabhakar, a junior civil engineering major from Brookline who also serves as a secretary for PHENOM and leads PHENOM’s student chapter at UMass.

Prabhakar said the fee hike is putting students in a difficult place, as the high-cost, high-aid model is moving UMass away from affordability. Instead, Prabhakar said the university should pursue the promise of the state’s Fair Share Amendment that could fund both the Debt-Free Future Act and the Cherish Act.

“We hope to catalyze these concerns to harness momentum for people to pay attention,” Prabhakar said. “Free college is possible in Massachusetts — we don’t have to accept the status quo.”

Chris Brady, a student trustee and senior from North Andover, said Massachusetts isn’t making sufficient commitment to higher education.

“This state systematically underfunds education,” Brady said.

Though students may not like the tuition and fee increases, Brady said trustees have explained the dire economic consequences to oppose them.

“They’re marketing it as literally the only fiscally available option,” Brady said, pointing to the tuition freeze that was implemented during the pandemic. “They actually cite how much money they lost.”

The trustees meeting began with Chair Stephen Karam citing recent accomplishments, praising Gov. Maura Healey for her support of UMass as a cornerstone of the state and an economic engine.

President Marty Meehan then spoke about the university system’s $8.3 billion economic impact based on expenditures and construction, referenced the coming graduates who will be going out into the world this spring, and hailed the inauguration of Javier Reyes as the flagship’s chancellor later this month.

Both Murdy and Serna used their comments to let trustees know about the challenges students have in finding housing in Amherst and the region, pointing to the Fieldstone apartment building’s public-private partnership on Massachusetts Avenue and the $1,900-a-month rent there for studio apartments.

“UMass bears responsibility, especially in regard to the Pioneer Valley’s housing crisis,” Murdy said. “Over the past 10 years, UMass Amherst has enrolled 3,000 additional students without providing reasonable accommodations for them.

“We now have overcrowded residence halls and a tsunami of renters contending for the same finite amount of housing,” Murdy continued. “The result is exploding housing costs, and the Amherst campus’ new luxury housing complexes do nothing to remedy that situation.”

Serna, too, said that Fieldstone is proving UMass to be an elitist school, and such private luxury living is another way of making UMass less accessible.

Following their participation in the trustees meeting, the students stood outside Whitmore with a megaphone and led chants like “no hikes, no fees, education should be free,” with Prabhakar and Murdy addressing those there.

“Why is it such a debate over whether graduate students get a living wage or undergraduate students can afford tuition?” Murdy asked. “That is a ridiculous concept.”