Big expansion eyed for higher education grants

Boston Statehouse

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The Department of Higher Education wants its budget to grow by more than $41 million next year, eyeing much of that money to expand a grant program that helps low-income students cover their unmet financial need.

The Board of Higher Education approved the department’s fiscal 2023 budget request on Tuesday, with a dissenting vote from student member Cameron Costa who said he and other students across Massachusetts “feel that this budget is not enough.”

The department’s budget recommendation clocks in at nearly $241 million, up more than 21 percent from the roughly $199 million appropriated this year.

The funding request will be weighed during state budget talks over the first six months of 2022. The fiscal 2023 budgeting process kicks off next week when legislative and Baker administration budget-writers gather to hear testimony on revenue expectations, and Gov. Charlie Baker is then due to file his spending plan in January before lawmakers present theirs in the spring.

Much of the department’s ask matches this year’s funding levels, and the increases that higher education officials are seeking include $3 million more in a line item supporting early college programs, an additional $3.5 million to boost available wraparound support services for community college students, and about $31.4 million to expand the MassGrant Plus program.

MassGrant Plus is designed to fill the gap between a low-income student’s financial aid awards and the cost of tuition and fees, which is referred to in the financial aid process as unmet need. It originally launched for community college students, and Joe Wallerstein, the department’s assistant commissioner for administration and finance, said it has so far “partially” rolled out at state universities.

“Affordability is key,” Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said. “The growth in financial aid over the last three years, which we have very much as you might imagine supported, continues with this budget and expands what we’ve done in terms of MassGrant Plus in particular.”

Santiago said that for the lowest-income students at community colleges, about 90 percent of unmet need has been eliminated, noting that “unmet need” as it is defined does not contemplate other costs of attending college that go beyond tuition, fees, books and supplies.

The proposed funding increase would expand MassGrant Plus to all public colleges and universities next fiscal year, and is projected to support 7,000 community college students, 8,000 at state universities, and 7,200 at the University of Massachusetts, Wallerstein told the board.

Wallerstein said the expansion would not “close or address all of the unmet funding needs, but it goes a long way towards meeting some of the unmet need that we currently see at our campuses.”

Costa, a UMass Dartmouth student, described the public higher education system as underfunded and said that leads to higher costs for students. He said the department’s budget proposal “will continue this systemic issue, resulting in the taking on of more debt for generations to come.”

“This budget is a conservative one, in a time when we recently saw tax revenues exceed projections,” he said, adding that the department’s budget “should be asking for more money to truly meet students’ needs like housing, food and transportation.”

Costa said the recommended MassGrant expansion does help students determined to have unmet need after financial aid is awarded, but leaves out the students whose expected family contribution is too high for them to pay.

“As a student who knows all too well how this budget does not support working class families, we need more to address the issue of suffocating student debt,” he said.

Costa said the board’s student advisory council in January would present “actionable steps” around legislation he said the board should support to steer more state funding into higher education and otherwise “lighten the financial burden” on students.

When Santiago introduced the budget, he said he wanted to acknowledge Costa’s remarks around the idea of expanding financial aid to students with slightly higher incomes.

“This budget does not do that, but we certainly are aware of that and we think it is something that needs to be studied and considered as we move forward,” Santiago said.

Santiago said the MassGrant Plus expansion is aligned with “this board’s commitment to cover unmet need among students.”

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