The University of Massachusetts Amherst drastically reduced the number of students invited back to campus this fall, keeping most courses online. To save money, the state’s flagship university laid off hundreds of resident assistants and peer mentors, including senior James Cordero.

“There's normally about 500 RAs and PMs. Now there's about 70 working,” said Cordero. “These are a lot of students who rely on the job for not only paying their tuition but also their housing.”

Unemployed, the 22-year-old English major moved back home to Woburn and took a job with the U.S. Census, knocking on doors. He’s been attending all of his classes online and says budget cuts have created a lot of uncertainty among students and professors.

“That uncertainty creates a lot of anxiety and stress,” he said. “We already have professors working as hard as they possibly can to create engaging and dynamic curriculums on Zoom so that they can engage students and give them the best experience possible. The more stress you put on them, the harder that job is going to become.”

Largely due to the pandemic and economic downturn, the University of Massachusetts system is dealing with a steep budget shortfall — $335 million, or more than 10 percent of the total budget. Faculty and staff furloughs are stressing students and undermining their education. But even before the virus, public colleges were facing a money crisis. Over the past 20 years, state spending per full-time student at public research universities like UMass Amherst is down more than 30 percent nationwide.

Last month, UMass Amherst announced two weeks of furloughs for most campus staff, including tech support, saying the move prevented immediate, massive layoffs. With fewer students on campus, the university says there is a greatly reduced need for student staffing in the residence halls.

UMass employees are hoping trustees will reverse budget cuts, urging them to preserve jobs and programs by using existing reserve funds and to play a more active role in advocating for state and federal funding.

Speaking to the UMass Board of Trustees last week, President Marty Meehan said budget and personnel decisions across the five-campus system are difficult, but necessary.

“Hope is not a strategy,” Meehan said via Zoom. “Recent reports indicate we could see a budget in October built on state revenues that are $5 billion less than last year.”

Those cuts could have been deeper. He said enrollment is down a half of a percentage point — the university had anticipated a 5 percent drop.

UMass administrators are hoping that their state appropriation is not cut. But in the last quarter of fiscal year 2020, state revenues decreased so much that it wiped out all the previous gains from the first three quarters, so it’s unlikely Massachusetts and other states will be able to fund public colleges at a level to maintain — let alone increase — access and affordability without action by the federal government.

“The thing is the states are in really tough positions as well,” said Will Doyle, a Vanderbilt University higher education and public policy professor. “The level of cuts that seem likely are unprecedented. It seems as though they're bigger than what we saw during the Great Recession, and those cuts were quite damaging to higher education.”

As for funding from the federal government, the U.S. House has passed a relief package that would send UMass nearly $120 million, but the Senate remains gridlocked. Still, Meehan, a former congressman, says the university is fiercely lobbying for the support it so desperately needs.

“As the third-largest employer in Massachusetts, the largest developer of the workforce in Massachusetts, and with powerful economic engines in every region of the state, we make our case every day that UMass and its students are a wise investment in the future of the commonwealth and the future of this nation,” he said.

In a tough political and financial environment, Doyle says UMass and other research universities are doing the best they can to make the case that public higher education is a public good. He says colleges are now facing financial challenges that may be bigger than the virus, and if they don’t receive state funding just to keep the doors open and to pay faculty and staff, they'll have to raise tuition and fees.

“When you raise tuition, you price students out of college,” he said. “There are people who can just barely afford to go right now, and if you raise the tuition, they're not going to go.”

Doyle worries that a four-year college degree will become a luxury good.

“And that means that colleges aren’t the engines of opportunity that they once were,” he said.

In Woburn, UMass senior James Cordero has been re-hired as a peer mentor and he holds meetings remotely. He’s responsible for more than 200 students and says he’s overwhelmed.

“I normally work with about 60,” he said. “There are some students who I reached out to and don't hear back from. These cuts are not going to affect every student the same way. The more marginalized a student is, the harder it's going to be on them.”

Cordero points out that first generation and low-income students already don't graduate in the same proportion as other students, and cutting student services will only make the problem worse.

Diane Adame contributed to this report.