The Massachusetts Campus Debt Reveal Project, a coalition of faculty and student organizers at public colleges and universities, has published a comprehensive statewide report on institutional debt. The group plans to share the Debt Audit Tool Kit it developed with colleges across the country to encourage greater public investment in higher education and address the affordability and student debt crises.
The Massachusetts Campus Debt Reveal Project points to the long-term decline in state funding for public higher education, resulting in:
- The UMass system has $3 billion in outstanding capital debt.
- Massachusetts state colleges have $1.2 billion in outstanding capital debt.
- Massachusetts community colleges have more than $1 billion in unaddressed deferred maintenance.
- On average, students at Massachusetts state colleges and UMass pay more than $2,500 in fees annually related to just their university’s building debt.
- Campus capital debt fees increase student loan debt by about 25 percent.
- Despite Massachusetts being a wealthy state, the cost to attend public colleges here is increasing faster than it is in any other state, and only one other state is ahead of Massachusetts in the pace of student debt growth.
The coalition is calling on the state to take over some of the capital debt now held by individual campuses and allow colleges and universities to focus on providing the faculty, staff and programs needed for student success, without exacerbating student debt.
“The purpose is to empower faculty, staff, librarians, students and community members. Once they better understand the ways campus debt affects students and programs, they can organize and take action to make public higher education more accessible, more affordable and maintain the quality of academic programs and supports for students,” explained co-lead organizer Joanna Gonsalves, who teaches psychology at Salem State University.
“When state funding is cut for public colleges and universities, then those institutions too often are forced to embrace destructive strategies just to survive.”MTA President Max Page
With support from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the group aims to unite public sector labor unions in support of a national anti-austerity movement to cancel debt for public colleges and the students attending them.
“The campus debt problem is a symptom of the larger problem of austerity and neoliberal economics over the past generation,” said MTA President Max Page. “When state funding is cut for public colleges and universities, then those institutions too often are forced to embrace destructive strategies just to survive.”
In Massachusetts, where state investment in public higher education has plummeted over the past 20 years, schools have taken on enormous debt to fund campus building repairs, modernize learning and research facilities, and build new residence halls. The group’s research shows that students pay the price. Campus debt has increased student debt in Massachusetts by more than 30 percent.
"The government is supposed to be helping us, but in reality, it's just the schools taking out loans and then us paying for those loans."Framingham State University Student Tyler Risteen
Tyler Risteen, a student majoring in sociology at Framingham State University, said rates of enrollment at her university have been declining."Personally, and [for] a lot of my friends I go to school with, I chose to attend a state school because it's supposed to be less expensive," Risteen said. "The government is supposed to be helping us, but in reality, it's just the schools taking out loans and then us paying for those loans." On a broader level, the report illustrates how campus debt undermines higher education as a public good by reducing classes, services, affordability and campus diversity. The massive debt obligations result in college administrators prioritizing finances over education. The campus debt crisis has also robbed funds from workers, as it affects wages, benefits and working conditions and contributes to contentious relations between management and the unions representing campus employees.
The Massachusetts Campus Debt Reveal comes as the American labor movement is experiencing a flashpoint, with interest in union membership growing at the fastest rate since the 1930s and unprecedented victories for workers at corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon.
In addition to the docket of bills and amendments that the Legislature could pass to increase public support for higher education, voters can adopt the Fair Share Amendment, which is Question 1 on the state ballot in November. Voting Yes on Question 1 will generate about $2 billion in yearly revenues for transportation and public education – including higher education – by applying an additional 4 percent tax to income above $1 million.
"We are building a movement to fight campus debt that is linked to the movement to cancel student loan debt.”Salem State Professor Emeritus Rich Levy
But the group’s long-term goals are also national in scope.
"We are building a movement to fight campus debt that is linked to the movement to cancel student loan debt,” said co-lead organizer Rich Levy, a professor emeritus at Salem State University. He added that canceling campus debt would reduce future student debt for all students and increase spending on core educational needs.
The members of the Massachusetts Campus Debt Reveal initiative invite students, educators, and workers to join them in raising public consciousness about campus debt, supporting debt cancellation and increasing public funding for higher education.