BOSTON (SHNS) – While state spending has shifted recently with a renewed focus on making higher education more affordable, a new report found that enrollment at Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities is down, which researchers partially blame on decades of disinvestment.
Though high school graduation rates have increased in Massachusetts, immediate college enrollment declined by 10 percentage points in five years, from 73 percent in 2015-2016 school year to 63 percent in 2020-2021, the Hildreth Institute’s new report says.
The study also found the gap in college enrollment between low-income and affluent high school graduates widened from a 21-point difference in 2017 to 30 points. Today, only 43 percent of low-income students enroll in college immediately after high school, compared to 73 percent of their more affluent peers.
“What we’re hearing on the ground with our conversations with students in high school, students in colleges, and what we hear from different surveys and polls, is that there is this big fear now that going to college is so expensive, and so burdensome, that they have to borrow extensively. So is it worth taking that risk?” said Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute.
Imboden said the research group wanted to look further back than 2020, to learn whether this trend began prior to the pandemic. With data starting in around 2015, she said, the dropoff in students going to college immediately after high school is evident.
This was around the same time people began talking more seriously about the student debt crisis, and the high cost of college was frequently in the news, Imboden said.
“Families began understanding the multi-generational problem that student debt creates, especially for low-income people who want to go to college,” she said.
Tuition and fees to attend four-year public universities in Massachusetts have increased 135 percent between 2001 and 2021, after accounting for inflation — a phenomenon that the Hildreth Institute says in their report was caused by state funding cuts.
Over the same period, the median household income in the state has experienced an 8 percent, inflation-adjusted increase and the state has reduced scholarship aid by 47 percent, according to the report.
The Higher Ed for All coalition, which is made up of groups advocating for totally debt-free higher education, has said state funding into higher education has decreased by about $2,500 per student between 2001 and 2020. In the same time period, students have seen about a $6,500 increase in tuition and fees to attend public colleges and universities, the coalition has said.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Reps. Natalie Higgins and Carmine Gentile have pushed a debt-free public higher education bill (S 823 / H 1265) for several sessions, re-filing it again this year.
“Graduating from college debt-free is not a radically new idea for our Commonwealth, but was the reality for the previous generation of college graduates,” the lawmakers wrote in a CommonWealth op-ed in February. “As late as 1988, the MassGrant covered 80 percent of tuition and fees at four-year public universities for working families. Today, the maximum MassGrant only covers around 10 percent of tuition and fees. Higher education funding has not recovered since the cuts in 2001, with per student funding down 32 percent and student scholarships also dropping 32 percent.”
This bill is one of a dozen that are the focus of a Joint Committee on Higher Education hearing scheduled for Monday, Sept. 18.
Imboden said the high cost of college tuition, fees and costs such as housing and course materials is also causing students to drop out of college without finishing their degree.
Since 2015, the student population at community colleges has shrunk by 28,726, according to the study. Of this decline, only about 20 percent (or 6,160) is due to a decrease in freshmen student enrollments. The report argues that this data indicates a rising trend of students leaving their degrees incomplete.
Those who are opting out of college are primarily people of color and low-income students, the study says.
It found that Hispanic high school graduates faced a steep decline in college enrollment, from 57 percent in 2015-2016 to 39 percent in the 2021-2022 school year. Black students’ enrollment rates fell by 14 percentage points in the same time frame, dropping from 70 percent to 56 percent.
“Had enrollment rates remained comparable to those of 2015-2016, an additional 6,651 high school graduates would have entered college immediately after graduating in the 2020-2021 academic year,” the report says.
Despite former disinvestment, there has been a noticeable shift in recent years as state lawmakers and agencies have turned their attention to addressing the affordability issue at state colleges and universities, Imboden said.
The Board of Higher Education in December called for the state to double the amount of financial aid for public higher education students to $400 million a year.
The board hoped to capitalize on the influx of funds intended for public education and transportation due to the adoption by voters of a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million per year.
Though the state didn’t dedicate $400 million of the $1 billion in surtax funds just for financial aid, Gov. Maura Healey signed a budget last month which included one of her flagship policies, “MassReconnect,” to support free community college for students ages 25 and older. It also included $18 million in last-dollar grants for students pursuing degrees in nursing starting in the fall of 2023 and $12 million to support “capacity building” efforts to eventually reach free community college in fall 2024.
In policy recommendations that accompany the report, Hildreth researchers advise that the state move away from last-dollar programs — such as MassReconnect — towards a more streamlined grant process and first-dollar programs.
“Last dollar is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. The first time students hear it, the first time I heard it, it took me time to completely understand what it meant,” Imboden said.
Imboden said last-dollar programs mostly benefit more affluent students who would not be granted other financial aid. A low-income student with significant need may have most of their costs covered by federal and state financial aid, whereas a more wealthy student who does not qualify for financial aid would pay more out of pocket. Since last-dollar programs fill the gaps between aid, the report says they are more likely to help those with less need.
Instead, they urge decision makers to look beyond tuition and fee, and to take into consideration the full cost of attendance. By designing grants that seek to meet the financial unmet need of students, we can reduce if not eliminate the need to borrow student loans, and move towards a debt-free public college in Massachusetts.
This would, however, be much more expensive for the state than last-dollar designs.
On WCVB’s show, On The Record, aired Sept. 3, Senate President Karen Spilka suggested free community college for all high school graduates would be coming next year. Asked if the state had the money for this program, Spilka replied “yes it does.”
“Right now there is a declining enrollment in community college, so there are seats,” Spilka said. “Let’s harness their talents and use them, again, we have a workforce shortage in almost every area of our economic sector.”
Last year, the state contributed about $1.9 billion annually to financing public higher education, according to a strategic review report EY-Parthenon conducted for the higher education board.