By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

AMHERST -- With public higher education officials saying they would be unable to keep tuition and fees frozen under Gov. Deval Patrick's budget and other fiscal demands pressing down on the state, the prospect of following through on keeping the student costs flat for two straight years is in question.

The plan to freeze tuition and fees for two years was pitched by University of Massachusetts President Robert Caret, and last year's state budget made reference to two years of keeping the student payments steady. Caret wants state funding to ramp up to 50 percent of the schools' budgets.

This year's freeze on student payments applied to community colleges and state universities as well.

The fiscal year 2014 budget included language mandating a freeze on "mandatory curriculum fees" at the University of Massachusetts if its fiscal 2015 budget is at least $518,755,373.

UMass Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance Christine Wilda said the governor's budget falls $3 million short of what UMass would need for another freeze, and said collective bargaining would add another $14 million bringing the total to $17 million needed.

"This investment is close to the target," said Education Secretary Matt Malone. He said, "We're comfortable with the proposed recommendation."

Patrick's proposed budget amounts to a $36.9 million increase over the amount included in last year's final budget.

UMass spokesman Robert Connolly said the additional money needed to fund contracts "doesn't necessarily intrude on the 50-50 question," and suggested the additional collective bargaining needs could be funded through a mid-year spending bill.

Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland told the News Service he has not received an assurance from lawmakers that the fiscal year 2014 achievement would be repeated.

"I think we would all like to see fees stabilized," Freeland told the News Service.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the News Service Monday it is too early to assess whether the fiscal year 2015 budget can support another year of flat fees and tuition.

Freeland told lawmakers Tuesday he is "not confident" Patrick's budget would be adequate to finance another rate freeze in the next fiscal year, and indicated another increase of $15 million for state universities and $20 million for community colleges would be needed.

The House and Senate Ways and Means committees visited UMass Amherst Tuesday for a hearing on education and local aid in the fiscal year 2015 budget. Caret was not present for the meeting, sending Wilda in his place.

"We certainly heard about that from our students," said UMass Amherst Director of Civic Engagement and Service-Learning John Reiff, thanking the legislative panel for sparing students an increase and asking for a repeat. He said, "Do these increases for us not at the expense of other public goods.... Please consider increasing the size of the pie. Raise our taxes."

Freeland told the News Service students have been increasingly asked to bear the cost of their public higher education, and said the 50-50 split Caret has sought for UMass would still be too expensive for community college students - though he believes they should pay something.

"Across the system, we did not have to increase tuition and fees for Massachusetts students who are pursuing university degrees," UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees before a budgetary hearing in the Student Union. "It was the first time in 20 years that our Board of Trustees did not have to implement an increase. The average savings was approximately $650 per student."

Around the country public officials and students have raised concerns about the cost of higher education as well as the costly loans taken on by young people seeking a degree.

Freeland said the state is seeking to save money at community colleges and state universities by consolidating information technology contracts at the 24 campuses. He said about 80 percent of the costs are staff, while other funds go towards needed technologies.

Through windows looking out onto the snowy campus, the backdrop to Tuesday's meeting was the ongoing construction of a new academic building.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from nearby Worthington who is vice chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, acknowledged that the capital projects do have "a connection" to the cost of the education, while saying new construction has rejuvenated the campus and helped make it more popular and competitive.

"On this campus there had been many, many years of no growth, no building," Kulik told the News Service. "So the investment here has been critically important to what we've seen in the last few years of high-quality students coming here."

Kulik noted the school officials testified that each campus has at least one new building and the UMass schools are close to their 8 percent debt limit, and said, "I'm not sure there's that much left in the pipeline for them to do here."

Rep. Angelo D'Emilia, a Bridgewater Republican, said the higher education system should think about refocusing its capital approach toward dealing with maintenance backlogs.

"I think before we take any steps further into continue expanding building and facilities, we really have to take a look at the assets that we have. We have a lot of tremendous assets," D'Emilia said.