Federal Relief Funds for Higher Education Offer Opportunities to Close Accessibility Gaps

Contact: Reginauld Williams, rwilliams@massbudget.org

BOSTON, MA – With the correct supports and investments in place, public higher education has the power to open up countless opportunities for low-income students and families from all backgrounds. Decades of chronic disinvestment in public higher education, however, has led to increased tuition and larger-than-ever percentages of students graduating with record-breaking amounts of student loan debt — all of which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund Explained, a new report from MassBudget, outlines the billions of dollars in federal relief allocated to the Massachusetts’ higher education system and includes recommendations for bold, equitable investment into the system.

Studies show that rising tuition costs disproportionately impact Black and Latinx students. Specifically, the cost of a public, four-year college or university in 2017 accounted for 38 percent of a Black family’s median household income and 43 percent of a Latinx family’s median household income, compared to just 21 percent of a white family’s median household income. COVID-19 further diminished already-starved higher education budgets. The University of Massachusetts’ Board of Trustees, for example, cut $171 million from its Fiscal Year 2021 budget, undoubtedly impacting thousands of students across its five campuses. To accommodate these financial adjustments, UMass cut about 1,125 student and temporary jobs, laid off 134 workers, and terminated another 397 positions.

“These past two years of COVID-19 has widened the chasm between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’,” says Anastasia Martinez, Policy Analyst for MassBudget and author of The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund Explained. “Higher education is one of the best predictors of economic mobility. Without affordable colleges and universities we are closing opportunities for folks in Massachusetts and stunting the growth of our communities.”

Since March 2020, the federal government has enacted six relief laws. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) have gone directly to colleges and universities and are split into two buckets. “Student allocations” will go directly to students to assist with COVID-19 expenses, and “institution allocations” will be used by institutions to assist with COVID-19 expenses. HEERF dollars going directly to Massachusetts’ higher education system present a unique opportunity for higher education stakeholders to create and implement the beginnings of student-centered, antiracist policies that would close long-standing accessibility and affordability gaps within our higher education system.

“The return on investment for public higher education cannot be underestimated,” says Martinez. “Successful higher education systems support every sector, strengthen the local workforce, and serve our communities. These funds have the ability to jumpstart a new beginning for higher education in Massachusetts”

Advocates and partners are currently fighting for the passage and implementation of a few bold initiatives including The Cherish Act, which would establish minimum funding to public higher education and freeze tuition and fees for five years and the Debt-Free Public Higher Education Act, which would create a grant program to pay the equivalent of tuition and fees and provide aid to cover the cost of attendance for students who meet the income eligibility. Bold proposals such as these can help ensure a more equitable and accessible public higher education experience for students across the Commonwealth.

Key staff related to this report are available for additional questions or comments upon request.



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