Left In Lowell

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May 2, 2014

UML: Wrong Priorities?

by at 10:55 am.

I was in my car a lot yesterday, so of course I was listening to WBUR. And they had an excellent piece about colleges which are taking a different path from most of the nation’s private and public universities…cutting back on sports, frills, and unnecessary services and getting back to spending their budget on professors and keeping their costs as low as possible for students so they don’t graduate with crushing debt.

It really hit home, because the trend of development at UMass Lowell for last 5-10 years have been right up there with the “conventional wisdom.” Renovate sports arenas, move your teams to Division 1, and chase sports prestige; build, or buy and renovate, grand new buildings (some academic, some not)…all to attract students with shiny amenities that may not really actually help them learn, or serve the goal of education. And of course, none of that is free, so the “fees” at UMass have gone up exponentially. Currently, in-state tuition, fees, room and board and meal plan all together costs $23,340. If you manage to graduate in four years (something else that is an issue), that’s almost $100,000 for a state university.

You can listen to the show or read the whole transcript - it was a worthy discussion on Morning Edition with the presidents of two different colleges which are heading in a very different direction. But here are some highlights worth mentioning:

Theobald: We eliminated five varsity sports. We are trying to reallocate our funds toward our student body, what goes on in the classroom, what goes on in the lab, so we scaled back by five sports. But it was incredibly difficult.

O’Shea: We don’t have any varsity sports. We are a very lean organization. We invest in faculty. It’s about a 10:1 student-faculty ratio. … Only 40 percent graduate with debt, and of those who have debt, the average debt is a little under $18,000. We invest in faculty instead of sports and even some student services.

Theobald: You’ve got to set priorities. There is an arms race for spending. And so a university needs to know who they are, who their students are and what their mission is. We need to focus on getting them in, getting them a course of study, making sure courses are available when they need them and getting them out in four years. That’s the priority for our students.

O’Shea: I think what is going to stop being a major driver is student expectation. I think the worry about cost is outstripping the desire for … huge facilities and things like that.

I recommend listening to the whole thing though, as they have a lot to say about what is happening to our higher education both public and private.

This is not to single out UMass Lowell or question all of its many buildouts and changes. A lot of new businesses and inventions and ideas are going to be incubated from what the University is doing here, and I think in many cases UML is keeping an eye on costs and developing in such a way as to offset some of them. (For instance, there are many acts coming to the Tsongas which are probably big money makers.)

However, as a Commonwealth, and as a nation, we need to stop and take a look at the direction our higher ed is going, because like the housing bubble, the student debt bubble could help take down an entire economy. A student who graduates with $30-100K in debt from a public university, or a student who drops out or does bother to attend college, is going to have a delayed start to their adult life; and miss out on reaching their full potential which, in turn, suppresses their whole lifelong economic contribution to society.

Some states are also ahead of us on this issue; discussing free higher education at state colleges and universities. Imagine what that will do for the economy of those states? But here in Massachusetts, the public university prices just keep going up and up. For all the wrong reasons.

8 Responses to “UML: Wrong Priorities?”

  1. Alex D. Says:

    Thank you Lynne, I loved this post. I graduate from UMass Lowell three years ago and struggled through my four years with the Chancellor’s vision for the university. UMass states their mission as “providing an affordable and accessible education of high quality” - since arriving, Marty has made it clear that his intention is to focus solely on quality and to dismiss accessibility. My wife graduated with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and we both experiened a number of fee increases during our time at UML. The growth of the university has definitely made it more visible, but has also prevented thousands of students from attending or from graduating on time or without burdensome debt. It’s inconsistent with the mission and with the values of the community that the universe is supposed to serve.

  2. Renee Says:

    How are the retention rates coming a long?

    We are a public university, but is this being built on too much by students who may never graduate with lots of debt and ’some college’ means nothing to employers.

  3. Lynne Says:

    I get that Meehan has this big vision of UML as a world class university. But in these days where “world class” means: big bucks spent on high-competing sports teams; state of the art facilities, dorms, and dining; and added amenities which are not connected to education, “world class” really means “out of reach for most kids.” This is not the reason that public universities were started in the first place.

    I really liked what these two university presidents had to say about the hard choices they’ve made to prioritize cost and the actual education itself. A 10:1 student-professor ratio?? Unheard of! Only 40% graduating with any debt at all, and the average under $20K total? Impossible! And yet…these guys are doing it, and I bet their education itself is pretty good.

    I also hate it when I hear, “well, $23,340 is not that bad when compared to Harvard or BU.” While all these private universities are basically totally outlandish, the fact that a kid going to UML could conceivably graduate with around $100,000 in debt (or hells, even just half that!) is just…insane. We need to take the profit motive out of public education.

    All that tuition/fee cost for UML, and the adjunct professor situation is still totally crazy. I mean, they did get a raise (finally, after 10+ years) after they formed a union, but the ratio of part time adjunct professors vs. full time is very high, and I’m guessing in a lot of cases, bad for the students and education, since you’ll likely see a high rate of turnover in the adjuncts.

  4. Gail Says:

    I have listened to a number of reports over the last year as to why tuition is so expensive, ranging from Pell Grants being the next Savings and Loan debacle [guaranteed money whether or not the student drops out] to the amount of IT/tech support needed to keep a college running. It is a complicated issue that I hope continues to be on everyone’s radar screen and that some steps are able to be taken to reverse the trend.–

    I was at an East Pawtucketville meeting last year –the year before? — on traffic which was held at UML before the parking garage on north campus opened. At that time the increased enrollment the previous year, exceeded the parking capacity that the garage contributed to the campus. Since the 2008 enrollment has increased something like 30% at UML. I think some of the changes are the result of need and some were because it had been so long since an academic building or dorm were built. Obviously nothing is for free, but I thought that some of the funding that was used was a fund for infrastructure that could not be used for other purposes and was not directly tied to tuition/fees.

  5. Paul Marion Says:

    Lynne and others, thanks for sharing views on the recent NPR series and related thoughts about UMass Lowell. A student living in Lowell or eastern Massachusetts who commutes to campus pays about $12,000 for annual tuition and fees to enroll as an undergraduate at UMass Lowell. Compared to the cost of a private college or university, we believe that is a reasonable price. And it is not only UMass Lowell saying that. Forbes magazine ranked UMass Lowell at #10 for best values in colleges, and Payscale Inc. put us at #10 for return on investment for public colleges. The value is confirmed by standard assessments such as the U.S. News and World Report rankings, where we show up as #158 nationally, an improvement of 25 spots in three years (the second-best gain among all U.S. schools in that period). Please be assured that everyone in the campus leadership, Chancellor Meehan foremost, is concerned about the cost of obtaining a university education in today’s market. UMass Lowell’s mission is explicit in stating that we are committed to “providing an affordable high-quality education” for everyone with the ability to be admitted. We have worked hard to open those admission doors more widely. In the past seven years, as has been mentioned, we have made it possible for more students to pursue their dreams—enrollment is up more than 40 percent to nearly 10,000 undergraduates and 17,000 students overall.

    Unfortunately, there is a nationwide trend among state legislatures to reduce funding for public higher education. It is more accurate to say UMass Lowell is a state-assisted institution now, since less than 25 percent of our annual operating budget is provided by the state. Our Lowell and Greater Lowell representatives have been strong supporters of the University and Middlesex Community College, and Gov. Patrick has championed more spending for UMass, but over the past few decades we have had to adjust to a changed climate of support. That said, we embrace the challenge and have produced important results. To assist students, we aggressively raise scholarship money. With the Meryl Streep event, we brought in $230,000 for scholarships. Our Commencement Eve Gala is coming up on May 16, where we expect to raise more than $700,000 for scholarships. For Lowell-resident students we provided $3.5 million in financial aid in the past year in the form of grants, scholarships, and tuition-waivers.

    As UMass Lowell transitions from a mostly commuter campus to one with half or more of its students being residents, then campus life becomes an even more important element of the university experience. The elevation to Division I athletics was endorsed by the Student Government Association and the Faculty Senate because it brings us in line with our academic peers around the country. Division I athletics and academic excellence are related. The top five universities in the country, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, all compete in Division I. All eight of the public institutions in the America East Conference, in which we now compete, are among the top 100 public institutions on the U.S. News list.

    UMass Lowell’s strategic plan calls for continuously refining management practices to be more efficient. We went outside-the-box in leasing student housing with the Riverview Suites project by working with a private builder, which saved on construction costs and has provided tax revenue for the City. Acquiring the under-performing downtown hotel several years ago allowed us to add space for 500 students at about one-third of the cost of building a residence hall of that size. We committed, at the community’s request, to have 32 inn rooms year-round and to open the entire inn to the public each summer. We seize opportunities to save money when we can. Many of our students are first-generation college students. We don’t want them burdened with extra debt. Colleges and universities today strive to be the choice of the best students they can attract. Other than for dormitories and a recreation center, UMass Lowell had not invested broadly in its infrastructure since the 1970s. Recent physical improvements have set us up well for the half of the 21st century. And as we go forward, so goes Lowell, which means the benefits are spread broadly. Be assured that Chancellor Meehan and his team are doing their best to keep UMass Lowell as affordable as possible in a competitive education market.

  6. joe from Lowell Says:

    That is an excellent, thoughtful, informative reply, Mr. Marion, and I thank you for offering it.

    What we’re talking about here is a balancing act. You raise a number of good points that tend to weigh on the side of greater investment in “polishing the apple,” but I think Lynne’s point remains. Even if the investments are completely in keeping with the strategic plan, they are still going to tend to drive up costs for students.

    I doubt Lynne is saying that UML should make no investments in in campus facilities. Similarly, I would hope that the University administration is keeping the issue of students’ cost in mind, and striving for an appropriate balance. Perhaps there isn’t really a cost problem today; if so, then please, keep Lynne’s thoughts in the back of your mind going forward, so we can make sure there isn’t such a problem in the future.

  7. Lynne Says:

    $12,000 without room and board is FAR too expensive IMHO. That was the cost, thereabouts, 13 years ago, of instate tuition *with* room and board at UNH in 1998. So in that timeframe, a public university (realizing I’m comparing two different public U’s) has roughly doubled in price? Unacceptable in my opinion. Remember, $12,000 without room and board, if you do not have parents that live in the area, means having to find money for an apartment on top of everything else.

    No, I’m sorry, I cannot accept that at $23,340 full price, the cost at UML is anywhere near “affordable.” I remember when price tags for the top private universities were not much higher than that. It wasn’t that long ago, either. And, people’s wages have stagnated during that time.

    Yeah, um…no.

  8. John N Says:

    Long time reader first time poster :)
    If you factor in inflation, $12,000 in 1998 is $17,000 today. So the actual increase in UML tuition would be 38%. Do students get 38% more (education, opportunity etc..). Now UML has the innovation hub, the SAAB ETIC center, new science labs, a new library and new housing. Would students rather pay $17,000 for a 1998 education today?

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