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Patrick’s Education Proposal Could Freeze UMass Tuition

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick’s ambitious new spending plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for a broad array of public education programs, from preschool through Ph.D. Patrick releases his full budget Wednesday, but some details of his higher education proposals have filtered out already.

In his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, Patrick closely linked the state’s economic future to education spending.

“We invest in education because well-prepared young minds and mid-career talent is our global calling card and our economic edge,” Patrick said.

It’s a point that’s vital to working-class students at the University of Massachusetts Boston, such as junior Alexis Marvel.

“We can’t expect to keep students struggling and drowning in debt if we expect to have a strong economy five, 10, 15, 20 years from now,” Marvel said.

Marvel is a political science major and a member of the UMass Board of Trustees. She says that even though her college is relatively cheap, she will still graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in loans. She receives a $200 tuition grant each year through the state-funded MassGrant program, but with a recent $700 increase in school fees, she says it’s pretty hard just stay on top of the bills she already has.

“I work over 50 hours a week. I’ve had multiple jobs since I’ve started here. And I still struggle to pay rent. I still struggle to buy groceries,” she said.

In 2010, UMass’ flagship Amherst campus was the 25th most expensive public university in the country. That’s according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Right now, the state pays about 43 percent of the cost of educating a UMass student, with students and parents picking up the rest. The state’s share was significantly higher before the recession hit. And some lawmakers say the state should pay as much as 70 percent of the tab.

The system’s president, Robert Caret, says the trustees decided to go for a more realistic goal.

“Part of the deal we cut [was] if they were able to get us back to 50-50 over a two-year period, which would mean they’d have to give us roughly half this year and half the year after, we would freeze tuition and fees for two years,” Caret said.

So the $50 million added annual investment the governor is expected to propose for UMass would keep tuition and fees in the system at around $12,000 — with variations from campus to campus — through 2015.

Over the next two years, Patrick wants to add more than half a billion dollars to education spending at all levels, including millions more for the community college system. That’s on top of another $1 billion he’s proposed in new spending for roads and bridges.

To raise the money to do all that, Patrick has called for added transportation fees and a 1 percent hike in the income tax. Although he’d also lower the sales tax, it’s a tall order.

“Well I think the governor has an uphill road to climb here,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Widmer says even if Patrick can push through tax hikes it won’t come without concessions.

“It really opens up a full discussion on where the money’s going to go,” Widmer said. “The House and Senate are going to want to spread around the additional revenues to many, many more programs than education and transportation.”

It all can make that $200 tuition grant UMass student Marvel gets look pretty small. But one administration spokesperson says Patrick’s plan would, over time, nearly quadruple that program’s budget. Marvel says if her grant were to go up correspondingly, that would make a big difference. Like many who’ve been galvanized by Patrick’s expansive — and expensive — vision, she plans to be on Beacon Hill this year, lobbying for just a little more help.

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