Gov. Charlie Baker's budget proposal takes steps that are "crucially important" to efforts around building equity and closing achievement gaps in colleges and universities, according the state's higher education commissioner.
Meanwhile, a coalition of education groups and teachers unions is pushing for the passage of legislation calling for $500 million in new funding for public colleges and universities.
Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said Massachusetts leads the pack educationally in a number of ways -- for one, boasting the highest percentage of its population with postsecondary degrees -- but also faces "startling" gaps.
A white female student's likelihood of completing a college degree is around 65 percent, he said, but for a Latino male student, that falls to about 20 percent, Santiago said at an event hosted by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.
"That's huge, and that will change your life circumstances in many ways, so one of the things that the board is now wrestling with is this failure, and we need to turn it around," he said. "We think that in the course of this year we are going to be able to address the situation head on. We know that there are costs of instruction and costs of attendance. Cost of instruction we understand well -- tuition, fees, books, all that -- but costs of attendance ... homelessness, hunger, transportation and childcare, I could go on and on. These are obstacles for many students as well and we need to understand what works."
Santiago said Baker's budget includes measures to address the various expenses students can grapple with, beyond just the cost of instruction.
The governor's fiscal 2020 budget includes funding increases for the University of Massachusetts system, state universities and community colleges. From projected 2019 spending levels, the budget hikes UMass funding $37.2 million to $562.7 million, state universities by $10.9 million to $273.5 million, and community colleges by $5.9 million to $294.5 million.
Baker also recommended a new $100 million trust fund aimed at reducing costs for students entering public colleges and universities.
The fund sets aside $10 million to pilot financial aid strategies that have been successful in other states; $15 million to expand early college programs, $25 million for matching grants to provide work experiences to students; $25 million in scholarships for students "participating in proven college success programs"; and $25 million for the Commonwealth Commitment, a program launched in 2016 to create lower-cost pathways for community college students to earn a four-year degree.
"A lot of the programs that we have are already up and running, so the funding is really going to support their growth, and it's really important that we begin to scale up these programs that we know are working, and that's what this budget does," Santiago told the News Service.
Education Secretary James Peyser said the inclusion of $100 million towards what are essentially financial aid programs is "unprecedented."
"Our current total state budget for higher education financial aid is about $100 million, so this is a tremendous boost," he said after the Rennie Center event. "The purposes for it, I think are also important in that they are not only providing additional financial aid to low-income students who need it so that they can go to college and complete college, but it's targeted in a way to make sure that they have the biggest impact and outcome on their experience."
In addition to the funding, the administration would also ask public colleges and universities to develop long-term plans to reduce student charges while remaining financially stable.
Responding to the governor's budget recommendations, UMass Amherst student James Cordero, the vice president of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), said families across the state are facing "a college cost and student debt crisis."
"One-time trust fund revenues for inadequate programs, and budget changes that only address $60 million of at least a $600 million annual deficit for public higher ed are not enough," Cordero said in a statement. "More students will drop out or never attend college while we wait for serious action."
The Massachusetts Teachers Association said Baker's proposal offered "insufficient one-time investments in public higher education funding."
The union supports a bill it said would increase higher education funding by more than $500 million a year when fully implemented.
Filed by Sen. Jo Comerford and Reps. Paul Mark and Sean Garballey, the bill would require that the state fund public higher education at levels equivalent to those from fiscal 2001, adjusted for inflation, according to the Fund Our Future coalition.
In announcing the bill, Fund Our Future pointed to a 2014 report from the Higher Education Finance Commission, which the group said found state funding of public colleges and universities has fallen from $12,000 to $8,000 per student since 2001.
The coalition includes the MTA, PHENOM, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, Boston Teachers Union, Citizens for Public Schools, and other groups.
The bill would also freeze tuition and fees for five years, provided that lawmakers appropriate enough money to reach the 2001 per-student funding levels.
Asked about the bill and pushback over Baker's proposal, Peyser noted that the budget process is in its early stages and lawmakers will debate their own spending bills.
"The Legislature needs to make decisions about how this thing is going to play out," he said. "We put forward a proposal which we think is an historic investment, both in higher education and in K-12 and which we can fund with existing resources, which means it's going to be sustainable. It's going to be a promise we can keep."