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    Advocates seek to avoid UMass tuition increase

    The House Ways and Means budget falls short of the funding level University of Massachusetts officials have sought to stave off tuition and fee increases across its four undergraduate campuses, but state representatives will have two opportunities to push it there next week.

    UMass officials told legislative budget writers in March that if they fulfilled the university’s $568.3 million funding request in next year’s budget, UMass would be able to freeze tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate students. If not, the university’s fiscal 2020 budget assumes a 2.5 percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase, UMass President Martin Meehan has said.

    Like Governor Charlie Baker’s budget, the spending plan teed up for debate in the House next week funds the UMass system at $558 million, a $38.9 million increase over this year, but $10 million short of the university system’s request.

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    “The House needs to step up, roll back decades of budget cuts, and stop yet another painful tuition and fee hike scheduled for students and families at all 29 of our public colleges and universities next year,” Zac Bears, the executive director of the Public Higher Education of Massachusetts, said this week.

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    UMass in 2018 raised its tuition 2.5 percent for in-state undergraduates, or an average $351 per student, marking the fourth straight year of increases after a two-year freeze that ended in 2015. Out-of-state tuition went up 3 percent, or an average $938 per student.

    Meehan in March said that uncertainty over state collective bargaining funding “has been a significant issue in previous contract cycles and has had a direct impact on student costs.”

    Lisa Calise, the UMass senior vice president of administration and finance, told the Ways and Means Committee last month that the $568 million ask is “an attempt to mitigate tuition increases.”

    “We are grateful to our partners in the House for fully funding the State’s share of the university’s collective bargaining costs in this budget,” Colin Murphy, a UMass spokesman, said. “It is a strong statement of support for UMass, our students and our employees.”

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    Two separate amendments — offered by Representatives Mindy Domb of Amherst and Natalie Higgins of Leominster — would raise the UMass funding to $568,302,000, matching the university’s budget request.

    Domb’s amendment, filed with Representatives Natalie Blais of Sunderland and Paul Mark of Amherst, focuses solely on UMass.

    The amendment from Higgins, who before joining the House in 2017 was the executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, would also boost funding for state universities, community colleges, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the Massachusetts College of Art and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

    “Of course we are supportive of the amendments that would increase our appropriation to a level that would allow us to freeze tuition for the 2019-20 academic year,” Murphy said in an e-mail.

    According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Ways and Means budget bumps higher education funding $55 million above this year’s spending levels, with $40 million in additional support for UMass and $12 million for state universities and community colleges, “primarily associated with collectively bargained increases in wages and salaries.”

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    Separate from the budget debate, advocates this year have been calling for lawmakers to pass a bill that would infuse additional money into the state’s higher education system.

    Meehan has expressed support for the bill, which calls for $500 million in additional public higher education funding. Known as the Cherish Act, it would also freeze tuition and fees for five years, provided that lawmakers appropriate sufficient money to meet targets spelled out in the bill.

    The Massachusetts Teachers Association, in a message to lawmakers, said Higgins’ amendment proposes resources that would “allow our public colleges and universities to freeze fees which, together with the funding increases, represents the goals of the Cherish Act for public higher education.”

    PHENOM, the public higher education network, is among the groups pushing for passage of the Cherish Act. Bears told the News Service his group also supports the Higgins amendment.

    “Students, workers, families campus presidents, and local community leaders all support Representative Higgins’ Amendment #512 because we are fed up with inaction on the fastest-growing public college costs in the nation, and the crushing student debt burden that comes with it,” Bears said in an e-mail.