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Massachusetts is a national leader when it comes to education, but its public colleges have long been treated as second-class institutions, operating in the shadows of top-notch private schools. Declining state support has some experts wondering whether Massachusetts can still afford to support four public universities.

Last month, dozens of students and faculty members visited the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill to urge lawmakers to pass a bill ensuring better pay for part-time, adjunct professors.

“In this state, the great education state of Massachusetts, we have been disinvesting as much as any other state over the past two decades in public higher education,” Max Page, a historian at UMass Amherst, said as he testified before the Joint Committee on Higher Education. Page also cited the state’s constitution, written by John Adams in 1780.

“I have a favorite word in that document. That word is ‘cherish,’” Page said. “It says you have to cherish your public schools and colleges. We don’t cherish them when we give poverty wages to adjunct faculty. We don’t cherish them when we don’t invest in full-time faculty. And we don’t cherish them when we shackle our students with $30,000 of debt every year.”

Since the 2008 recession, Massachusetts and other states have cut public college funding by more than 30 percent per full-time student, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Lincoln Project.

With states walking away from their support of public higher education, the cost of college has shifted from taxpayers to students and their families. Prices have risen faster than median income.

At UMass Boston, administrators are facing at least a $10 million shortfall this fiscal year. They have offered cash buyouts to staff and faculty, delayed building projects and proposed deep cuts to classes and part-time professors.

The significant budget problems have some wondering whether Massachusetts is in a position to support four public universities – UMass Boston, Amherst, Lowell and Dartmouth.

“Not even close,” said Richard Freeland, former Massachusetts commissioner of higher education. “We can support one, and we should develop one. And if we try to develop four we’re going to end up with zero.”

Freeland said the state’s investment in UMass is average at best.

“We are not competing at the highest levels, or even really, for the most part, the second level of public higher education. We’ve diffused our resources pretty widely, and there haven’t been that many resources to begin with,” he said.

UMass President Marty Meehan defends the quality of public colleges in the state, despite declining state support.

“UMass is now number three in terms of research in New England, second only to Harvard and MIT,” he said. “UMass got more money for its operating budget when Mitt Romney was governor than we do today. So, that’s a challenge, but that just means the university has to be more innovative in terms of finding the revenue that we need.”

Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg also says UMass should innovate.

In this year’s budget negotiations, the Senate had proposed a $26 million increase in spending on public universities. “But now we’ve hit the ropes again,” Rosenberg said, “and hundreds of millions of dollars are going to have to be cut out of this budget.”

On Friday, the Legislature passed a $40.2 billion state budget that included roughly $513 million for the UMass system. Public higher education advocates said the budget underfunds UMass by at least $30 million.

A review by WGBH News found that 46 percent of state lawmakers went to public colleges.

“In states where public higher education is the main option, you see a greater deal of energy and excitement and commitment,” said Rosenberg, a graduate of UMass Amherst. “But even in those states they’re not able to increase, and student charges are rising.”

UMass President Meehan has said it’s likely that tuition and fees will rise 2 to 3 percent in the fall. It is another sign that if Massachusetts is going to support four public universities, students and their families will shoulder the financial burden unless priorities suddenly change on Beacon Hill.

WGBH intern Nelson Reed contributed to this report.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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  1. The headline of your recent report on the University of Massachusetts, “Can Massachusetts support four public universities?,” illustrates the problem with the story, which is that it obscures the fact that UMass is a state-wide system, not a group of institutions that share a common name. Like most other states, we have a public university system with multiple campuses. However, Massachusetts stands virtually alone in leaving each campus to sink or swim on its own, and in forcing students and their families to shoulder the burdens of decentralized bureaucracy and duplicative budgets. Perhaps the most telling illustration of this costly and unfair system is that students and faculty at each campus can’t access the libraries at the other campuses, which means not only that each campus has to pay for basic resources that would be much cheaper if they were shared, but also that the libraries at Boston, Lowell, and Dartmouth remain impoverished in comparison to the library at Amherst, the so-called flagship, although it is important to note that Amherst is woefully underfunded. Thus it is clear that Massachusetts can’t support four public universities, but we can support a unified public university system that is organized to distribute educational resources fairly and efficiently.

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