In The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

We must CHERISH the Commonwealth’s public higher education

(I delivered the following remarks on the floor of the Senate last night after withdrawing my amendment, #302.)

Increasing investment in education is one of the great promises of our generation.

My amendment increases each of the higher education line items—UMass campuses, State Universities, and Community Colleges—to implement the first year of the CHERISH Act legislation.

As legislation, this bill was heard by the Higher Education Committee and my thanks to the senator from Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire, and Middlesex for that early hearing. The legislation continues to have broad support and vocal from students, staff, faculty, community members alike.

I want us to remember that the vast majority of public high school student who attend college or university do so by attending one of the Commonwealth’s public higher ed institutions.

These students are far more likely than their peers from out of state to settle in the Commonwealth and make their lives here.

So not only is funding public higher education a civil rights win as it helps bolster the institutions that are leveling the playing field for all our students, it makes economic sense as our economy will benefit from a better and better educated workforce able to seize the promise at the heart of 21 century jobs.

What’s more, study after study confirms what we can imagine to be true: that the return on investment of higher education funding is vast.

Yet. Yet. Yet.

Per student, public support for higher education in Massachusetts has been cut by 31 percent since fiscal year 2001.

The Legislature’s funding of scholarships has been cut similarly, by about 31% since 2001.
We’re in the bottom half on per student capital spending. And as a share of our economy, our public higher ed spending is roughly 43rd nationally.

These are devastating figures which have meant that education costs which must be paid by students and their families has increased dramatically, from approximately 30% of total costs in 2001, to 55% in 2016.

Massachusetts now has the fastest-growing public college costs and the second-fastest increase in student debt in the nation.

Here are some reflections on this from UMass Amherst students who have filled our halls and offices for the last days:

“It has affected me since I was a freshman. I was guilt-ridden and stressed knowing my family was barely getting by and I was the first and only one to go to college. Knowing I put my family and myself into debt felt and continues to feel terrible, but more enraging than anything at this point.”  —Class of 2019

“I think about it at least once and day and it makes me so stressed that I feel physically ill.” —Class of 2022

And another student from the Class of 2022 who has long aspired to be a lawyer but now fears that—since their parents’ house rides on their education—they’re beginning to fear not even being able to finish their undergrad, let alone aspiring to a career in law.

Our tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities are among the highest in the country. The average UMass student is graduating with over $30,000 in student debt, and graduates of our state universities leave school with over $25,000 in student debt, on average.

U.S. News & World Report recently released its nation’s college performance rankings for the 50 states. While the Commonwealth was ranked #1 in the nation in degree attainment and 16th on 4-year graduation rates, we ranked near the bottom on low debt at graduation, where we are 43rd; and tuition and fees, where we are #45.

The Cherish Act takes aim at these concerning trends and begins to address them.

I am honored to be the lead supporter of this work in the Senate.

It’s the right thing to do—and I’m propelled because of my deep love and commitment to two vibrant public higher ed campuses in my district.

Greenfield Community College ranks #1 in the Commonwealth in graduation rates for Black and Latino students, which to the college’s credit, has been a lasting priority.

At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst:

  • Over 30% of students are of color. 25% are first generation.
  • UMass educates more Commonwealth students that the top eight private colleges in the Commonwealth combined—awarding more STEM degrees than all of these institutions—degrees, I would strongly suggest are essential to keep Massachusetts ranked #1 in our innovation economy.

All the while, the UMass leapt 26 places in national rankings this year.

When the Senate President started this session, she called for bold ideas on how we create a brighter future in Massachusetts.

I responded to that call for bold ideas by filing the Cherish Act, which I called at the time a “transformative piece of legislation.”

The Senate President, to her credit, helped ensure that the Cherish Act received a public hearing early in this two-year legislative session, because she believed this body deserved time to discuss the need for funding for public higher ed in the Commonwealth.

And these deliberations and discussions are in depth and ongoing bolstered and furthered by the years of work on urgent issues like public education and student debt led by this body.

What’s clear to me is that this work is personal for you, my colleagues. The Senate President has noted numerous times that she is a product of public higher ed, and time and again she has acknowledged how key our institutions of higher ed are to the state’s economic success.

I know this is personal to me. I came to this chamber to fight for public education pre-K through higher education.

And it’s a main driver of my call for new and progressive revenue—so that we have the resources to go the distance we must go.

I am proud that the Senate has been on record supporting the Fair Share Amendment. Delighted that the Senate President convened a Revenue Working Group—precisely so we can be thoughtful and deliberate about how we infuse more funds into our important services and programs, including public higher education.

Today, I am confident that the need for public higher ed funding will be fully vetted by the Senate, and we will have the debate we must have to get it right.

And I fervently hope that the student voices we have heard this week continue to be heard in the State House as that debate moves forward. This is, of course, the People’s House and I’m honored to do the people’s business—first and foremost education—with all of you.

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