Chronic underfunding of public higher education over two decades has created a crisis for students, faculty and staff at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts, resulting in ever-rising costs and debt for students, overreliance on poorly paid adjunct faculty and part-time staff, and dwindling resources on campuses that now have to cover costs once paid for by the state.
Education activists put human faces on these issues today at a State House press conference, calling for an immediate $120 million reinvestment in public higher education and passage of the Cherish Act, which would increase spending on public colleges and universities by $600 million over the next five years. The event was sponsored by the Fund Our Future coalition, which includes the MTA and other unions, along with community organizations and faith groups.
Salem State University student Meghan DeVeau spoke of the toll taken on her as she works three jobs to fund her education.
“We need debt relief for those who go into public service — especially those who go into public education and work in the neediest districts.”Tyler Ramsay, Pittsfield elementary school teacher
Pittsfield elementary school teacher Tyler Ramsay explained how the $100,000 in debt he accumulated pursuing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UMass Amherst made it impossible to work in districts with low pay or high housing costs.
“We need debt relief for those who go into public service — especially those who go into public education and work in the neediest districts,” Ramsay said
His sentiments were echoed by Izabel Depina, who has incurred $60,000 in debt so far to attend UMass Boston and worries about the ability of her children — ages 19 and 12 — to attend college.
Adjunct professor DeAnna Putnam, who teaches at both Bunker Hill Community College and Middlesex Community College, said that the public higher education system relies on adjuncts to teach 70 percent of courses, undermining the state’s goal of increasing programs to provide early access to college.
“There’s no way early-college programs can work with the existing infrastructure, which is weak and cracking,” she said.
Professor Joanna Gonsalves of Salem State University warned that the support programs and services her university has painstakingly built to improve graduation rates will collapse if her campus has to keep cutting faculty and staff.
“It would be a shame, and unjust, to roll back all of the progress we have made over the past decade,” Gonsalves said.
State Senator Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) and state Representative Sean Garballey (D-Arlington), two of the lead sponsors of the Cherish Act, attended the event and explained the importance of increasing public higher education funding.
“There’s no way early-college programs can work with the existing infrastructure, which is weak and cracking.”Joanna Gonsalves, Salem State University Professor
Both lawmakers said that reinvesting in public colleges and universities is long overdue and essential to sustaining the state’s economy.
The legislation would:
- Enhance the MassGrant Plus program and provide financial assistance for the lowest-income students.
- Provide adjunct faculty with access to health insurance.
- Establish pay equity for adjuncts.
- Relieve colleges and universities of capital debt, which would allow campuses to increase faculty and staff.
- Freeze tuition and fees.
Last year, the Fund Our Future Coalition successfully fought for passage of the Student Opportunity Act, legislation that is bringing a historic increase in education funding for public preK-12 schools. Now the coalition is focused on resources for public higher education.
Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, said the Cherish Act is needed immediately to avoid seeing the state “push students over the education cliff” created by underfunded public colleges and universities.