(SHNS/WWLP) – The erosion of government support for higher education over the past 20 years has made obtaining a four-year degree increasingly inaccessible to low-income students in Massachusetts, particularly students of color, as tuition and fees increases have required greater borrowing, a new report shows.

The study, produced by the Hildreth Institute and being published Monday, found that while state funding for public higher education declined 20 percent per full-time student between 2001 and 2020, tuition and fees at four-year institutions rose an average of 59 percent.

“The crisis for people of color, particularly black and Latinx students is at its worst in community colleges with enrollment around 30% over the last couple of years, we also see enrollment down at the state university system,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association

Financial aid has also failed to keep pace with rising costs being shifted onto families, falling 35 percent for full-time students from $595 to $386 during a time when median household earnings have climbed 13 percent, the report found.

“I know I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if I had to pay loans…that would have been anxiety-inducing,” said Olly Ajao, Amherst College student.

“It stresses me out a lot, especially when thinking about graduate school, and how I am going to pay for that? Will I have to take a gap year? Or will I have to work a few years?” said Taylor MasterAlexis, a Smith College student.

Massachusetts students are being priced out of public college by rising tuition teacher’s associations are sounding the alarm.

“After two decades of disinvestment, we’re too far down the road to expect a few reforms will re-chart a new course for our public institutions and students. Years of inaction will force the state to finally decide the role the Commonwealth, which prides itself on being the birthplace of public education, should play in post-secondary public education,” wrote Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute and the author of the report.

The state this year budgeted nearly $1.2 billion for its higher education campuses, including $577.5 million for the University of Massachusetts, out of a $48 billion state budget. After passing a law before the pandemic reforming the way the state funds K-12 education, lawmakers are now grappling with how to make education more affordable at both the beginning and advanced stages of a student’s educational career.

Local educators advocating for the Fair Share Amendment, a proposed state tax on annual incomes above $1 million. It would generate over $1 billion annually and would be spent on public education and make public colleges affordable.

“It would increase access for families to higher education working families, poor families, middle-class families have been paying their taxes, the uber-rich, the 1%, to pay their fair share of taxes,” said Ian Rhodewalt, local educator at Amherst.

Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano have both discussed finding ways to use federal dollars and other resources to lower the cost of early education and care while Reps. Natalie Higgins and Sen. Jamie Eldridge have filed legislation to make debt-free college a reality for tens of thousands of students.

Mariano and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz are expected on Monday to announce new investments in the early education workforce that will be a part of the House’s fiscal 2023 budget due out on Wednesday.

Imboden said state policymakers should seriously consider the framework put forward by Higgins and Eldridge in their bills (H 1339. S 829) to guarantee debt-free higher education for all students, and estimated that it could cost between $771.7 million and $1.015 billion, depending on who would qualify for enhanced aid.

Public universities now rely on tuition and fees for 40 percent of their revenue, according to the report, which is a far different paradigm from the 1980s when student charges delivered less than a quarter of an institution’s revenue.

In the 1980s, financial aid through the MassGrant program, the state’s main form of need-based financial assistance covered 80 percent of a student’s tuition and fees. It now covers 10 percent of a full-time student’s expenses, researchers wrote.

“With this shift and the decline in financial aid to students, the financial burden on public higher education students and their families is at an all-time high,” Imboden wrote.

The shift puts more hardship on students from low to moderate-income backgrounds, requiring them to work more hours outside of school and take on more students loans, and putting them at greater risk of not finishing their degree.

63% of students at public universities now take out loans to complete their degrees, compared to 53% of their peers at private colleges, the report found, and public university students now graduate with more debt ($24,112) on average than their private school peers ($23,940).

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dire, according to the Hildreth Institute, which found that public higher education enrollment dropped 6.9 percent in 2020 and another 4.2 percent in 2021, with community colleges seeing the sharpest declines and Black and Latino first-year students dipping 33 percent between 2019 and 2020.

“Until we address the fact that chronic disinvestment has priced out those who stand to gain the most through higher education, we will continue to see negative enrollment trends that further disenfranchise communities most in need of investment,” the report stated.

Communities of color have a higher rate of student loan debt in default than white communities – 12 percent to 5 percent.

The Hildreth Institute concludes that the state government should expand eligibility of the MASSGrant program, as well as the types of educational expenses that students can put the money toward, and boost funding to cover the unmet need of students attending public institutions so that they can graduate with little to no student debt.