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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Achilles heel of commuter schools

When the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) ensured the University of Massachusetts Boston a continuation of both federal funds and financial aid by re-accrediting the institution in 2005, both agreed that the enrollment and retention of students according to the UMass mission would benefit from some closer attention.

The NEASC Commission on Institutions of Higher Education conducts a review every ten years with UMB and other public higher education institutions in the region to guarantee that educational quality and the missions of the schools are being upheld, enabling that institution to remain accredited.

“If we’re not accredited, we can’t receive any federal financial aid or any federal funding so it’s really critical that we become accredited and that we stay accredited,” said Peter Langer, the Associate at UMB.

Come 2015, NEASC will be back on campus, this time asking how UMB has progressed in the Achilles heel of commuter schools: enrollment and retention of students. According to a report published by UMB, two main obstacles regarding admissions revolve around increasing tuition hikes and a lack of student housing on campus.

Langer noted that the percentage trend of student retention is currently at 75% and still on the rise and that admissions offices will have their hands full next fall when UMB opens its doors to its projected 13,500 students. He also admitted that tuition increases are indeed a growing reality for many students attending UMB and are a factor in retention and enrollment, but that the school has managed to keep rates lower than the rising cost of goods and services.

“We try to increase [student] retention by increasing financial aid and maintaining that tuition increases at or below inflation so that, like this year, the tuition that went up was below the inflation rate,” Langer explained. Even so, “with increasing fixed costs such as the cost of heating and facilities, health insurance, and the cost of collective bargaining, it’s very difficult not to have an increase in tuition to try and balance the budget,” he said.

Pamela Cataldo, a UMB student involved with campus club Socialist Alternative, argues that the same rising costs that the administration sees as a factor in tuition hikes account for the woes of many UMB students when trying to balance education costs with living expenses.

“With the rising costs of housing, gas, healthcare, food, childcare, and an increase in debt, increasing tuition and fees is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. The urban mission stresses how the University and wider community are inextricably linked — the economic crisis that is burdening our communities has the same consequences for UMB students,” she said.

According to Langer, since tuition rates began their uphill rise in 2001, financial aid and grant services available to students have also seen a spike. Today, one million dollars has been added to the UMB financial aid pools allowing those services to reach 92% of student’s unmet financial needs. Langer insists that this, along with other measures aimed at assisting students from lower income backgrounds, is UMB’s way of standing by its almost 45 year old mission statement of access and affordability.

“We try to shield the students as much as possible in trying to do a better job by bringing in outside grant money and more donors and gifts to the university,” he said. “But for the last few years, the percentage of our income that comes from state funding has been low.”

Indeed, the state of Massachusetts has one of the lowest federally funded contributions to higher education in the country. It is also in competition with several other states for the dubious honor of having one of the highest tuition rates in America.

“Public higher education in Massachusetts is not funded as well as we believe it should be so it’s a problem,” Langer said.

Cataldo couldn’t agree more. “The state needs to prioritize the funding of public education instead of adding onto the already strained financial situation of poor and working people,” she said.

Judging by the enrollment and retention rates, however, it looks like the prospect of higher education, although rising in costs, is also growing in popularity. With the implementation of the Strategic and Master Plans coming to a campus near you in the years to come, one of the most contentious topics at UMB—student housing—will soon become a reality.

Langer confirmed that in the next five years, there are plans to build a student residence that could potentially shelter 2,000 students down from Mt. Vernon St; a move that could appease a frustrated student populace in the short term and help increase retention rates in the long run.

“This has to increase retention, because everything suggests that when students reside on campus, the proximity to the services, their connection to the place, their comfort, their hassles of just going to school are reduced,” Langer said.

Ultimately, both Langer and Cataldo realize they are fighting an octopus with many tentacles, and are going to have to climb an uphill battle in order to reap the rewards of an affordable post secondary education.

Langer said he believes the only way up is by continuing to work, to lobby, and to educate, so UMB can get an increasing percentage of resources.

“I think together, administrators, faculty, staff, and students are all on the same page here in figuring out how to help each other make the case to downtown, to the business and political community and citizens for continued support in wanting to keep the costs as low as possible,” Langer said.

When the NEASC come knocking on the door of the Campus Center in 2015, it looks like the University will have good things to report.