Competition Among Public Universities Remains Strong

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Ernie May is head of the Faculty Senate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
Ernie May is head of the Faculty Senate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

With state budget cuts to fund public universities, schools like UMass-Amherst face rising costs, fewer tenured professors and older infrastructure.

Forced to compete with these challenges, many fear that the Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities will be unable to provide a quality education to the state’s high school graduates.

The Massachusetts public university system has deteriorated thanks to years of underfunding, according to Richard Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education.

“The people of Massachusetts still have a tendency to think, because we have Harvard and MIT and all of these great private institutions, that we are a national education leader," Freeland said in a special live broadcast here. "[This] is my message as commissioner of higher education: ‘That may have been true 50 years ago, it’s not true today. We need the public sector.’”

Ernie May, a UMass music professor and the Faculty Senate secretary, says he fears state budget cuts could make his school less affordable to students.

"I don't have that much fear, but the fear really is that it will become increasingly privatized, lose its accessibility to a broad range of economic levels," May said.

"In order to continue being what we are and to doing what we do best, we have to continue investing into the infrastructure — in both the physical infrastructure and the faculty infrastructure — and this creates costs, which, if we don't get support from the state, needs to be passed on to the students."

As fees rise, attending UMass is becoming less and less feasible for poorer high school graduates.

"In Massachusetts, the likelihood of a low-income student with very strong academic scores of going to college is nowhere near as high as the likelihood of an upper-income student with modest academic scores," Freeland said. "We are at-risk of leaving our smart but financially-needy students behind in this equation.”

The UMass system was recently ranked No. 56 in the Times of London's list of the top 200 universities in the world — the only public university in New England in that ranking. But state budget cuts could mean UMass eventually loses ground to its top competitor, the University of Connecticut.

"The University of Connecticut is on a faster trajectory than we are and they'll overtake us in the near future," May said.

May cites an increase in investments into UConn in the early 1990s and early 2000s, an addition of 5,000 students and more tenure-track faculty as factors that give the school an edge over UMass.

Even with the recent escalation of fees, many students find that the UMass system is still cheaper than other universities. In tough economic times, the public higher education system is extremely important to the state.

“These public institutions are now educating two-thirds of the young people who come out of our high schools and go to college in this state,” Freeland said. “That is where our workforce of the future is coming from. If we don’t invest in higher education we’re not going to have the people we need to drive this economy and keep this state strong.”

This program aired on September 23, 2010.

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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