Friday, May 13, 2011

You Just Got Poorer: 8% Fee Hikes for All Students Next Semester

Let’s get this clear right from the start: You will be paying at least $800 more for school next year in the form of increased fees. There’s nothing that can be done about it at this point. Chances are good that you haven’t even heard about it, before now.

UMass Boston is a “working” campus. Here on the south end of the Red Line, you won’t find kids with trust funds, or Greek houses, or any of the wild parties that Hollywood promised us. We’re a campus of mothers, who are trying to get their degree and raise kids at the same time. We’re veterans, who went through hell to get the GI Bill, and still have to hold down a job to make ends meet. We’re kids who were born and raised in Dorchester, and we’re transplants from the Midwest who moved to the Hub for one reason or another. Every day, spring and fall semesters, summer and winter sessions, classes are packed with students that are here for one reason – someone told them that if they wanted to get ahead in life, they needed to get an education.

Once we’re done with classes for the day, we pack it up and head to work. You’d be hard pressed to find a student here at UMB that doesn’t have some kind of part-time or full-time job they’re trying to hold down in addition to going to school. Do we really have any other choice? The cost of going to this “affordable state school” starts at a fifty thousand dollar minimum for a four year degree. That’s assuming it only takes a student four years, which is a heroic feat unto itself for those who are trying to make rent, bills, and school at the same time. That’s also before books, parking, or any other expenses. Not many scholarships are paying out more than fifty thousand dollars these days, so most of us are sucking up those costs in loans. We’ve been raised on the ideology that academic excellence is rewarded with financial success, and we’re finding out that it’s actually rewarded with a decade of debt in an unstable job market.

Theoretically, we’re a “state school.” The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has set aside funds to make sure that students who don’t have the benefit of wealthy families can get an education that lets them compete on an even footing with our Ivy League peers. In 1985, the Commonwealth funded a full 75 percent of the cost of running the UMass system. Today, that number has dropped to less than 15 percent, and the bulk of that shortfall is being extracted directly from the student body. In short, we’re a public school that has been nearly shut off from public funding, and it shows. The University is planning on increasing the student population from around 15,000 to over 25,000 in the next ten years – if the state won’t pay for the new science center, residence halls, and academic buildings, then UMB needs to find more students to foot the bill.

And that’s why you need to pay about $800 more in fees for school next year.

The Board of Trustees has failed us. They have not impressed upon state lawmakers the necessity and fiscal wisdom of maintaining a well funded educational system. Our Ivy League peers in Cambridge and along the Charles are largely out-of-staters who will not stay in Massachusetts once their education is complete. Statistically speaking, students attending one of the UMass schools will overwhelmingly choose to stay in-state once they graduate. We are the ones who will contribute to the economic stability of the Commonwealth, returning eleven dollars in tax revenue for every single dollar that was paid into our education, in the long run. We’re the ones who will draw in businesses with a highly skilled labor pool. We’re the ones who are getting the shaft, because things like “Film Subsidies” for Hollywood seemed like a sounder financial plan than investing in education. Apparently, movies about Harvard are more valuable than academics in Quincy, Lowell, or Amherst. Instead of fighting the battle in the Statehouse, the Board has been content to pass expanding costs onto students, slowly yielding to a creeping privatization of the University system.

The faculty is not entirely immune to the pressures, either. It’s true that they have a union, and even non-tenured members participate, but work is by no means guaranteed, and in times of recession, pay can be cut. The union had negotiated a 3.5% pay increase for instructors for next year, (and given the level of inflation, that’s barely breaking even,) but they’re still going to have to fight to keep that raise. Professor John Hess, a member of the faculty staff union who was kind enough to speak to me about the situation at hand, put it this way: “The State doesn’t want to pay for it. They want UMass Boston to fund it. They’re trying to divide us because they’re going to say the only way they can pay for the raise is by charging the students. This is how they drive the wedge between us.” It’s easy for us to be misguided in our anger, and blame the assistant professor who makes $30,000 a year, instead of Executives that have failed to secure funding, and grant themselves six figure raises. “It’s disgusting,” according to Professor Heike Schotten, that “this is being funded on the backs of the students.” The outgoing president of the UMass system made over $500,000 a year, and the incoming president will make over $600,000. Most students couldn’t name either one, or recognize them if they bumped into them into the hall.

Even though the faculty has the rights and privileges a union brings, don’t be fooled. Those can be stripped away in the blink of an eye. As a commonwealth with a super-liberal reputation, the Statehouse still voted to pass a bill to deny collective bargaining rights for municipal workers on the 29th of April, effectively knee-capping unions. What happened in Wisconsin can easily happen here, and if the trend continues, it’s only a matter of when, not if.

There is power in solidarity, but let me tell you, it’s something this student body does not have. We’re overworked and tired, and we’re not paying attention to the rug that’s about to be pulled out from under us. This past Wednesday a group of students stood for four hours at the front of the school’s dining hall during peak hours, trying to educate their fellow students about the impending increase in fees. While KatieGovoni’s paper clothing – made from the bills that she has to pay each semester – drew a lot of stares, relatively few were willing to commit to trying to save themselves nearly a thousand dollars next year. How can we expect to come together to fight for our common interest when most of us won’t even fight for our individual interests?

Whether it’s apathy, or ignorance, or impotence, there’s not a damned thing we can do about the erosion of the quality in our education given the current level of student involvement. We’re watching the university turn from an engine of knowledge, where ideas are created and traded, into a “degree mill” that cranks out graduates, as long as our bank accounts hold out. As long as we one of those degrees falls into our hands, most of us don’t seem to care.

Don’t let it happen. On May 11th, there will be a rally after classes end to inform and organize students and faculty. The students organizing this don’t bite. They’re nice folks who are just like you, and they’re trying to save you a lot of money for the rest of the time you’re in school. Stop by and talk to them.

Then, on June 8th, at UMB, the Board of Trustees will meet to decide how much more we ought to pay for our “public” education. Come tell them that we can’t afford to spend our first decade after graduation digging ourselves out of debt when we have mortgages to pay and pensions to invest in. Show up to tell them to take it back to the Statehouse and do their jobs as our advocates there. If they won’t listen, then we need to reach out to the faculty union and go to Beacon Hill to represent ourselves. Our actions, or failures to act, may well decide the shape of public education in the Commonwealth for generations to come.

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