Educated and Encumbered: Student Debt Rising with Higher Education Funding Falling in Massachusetts

Higher education is an important factor in the success of our commonwealth. Expanding access to affordable high quality postsecondary education can provide more of our young people with the opportunity to choose their paths in life without being blocked by insurmountable financial obstacles. In the long run, that strengthens our overall state economy. Adequate state funding helps ensure that these benefits are broadly available to all who want to pursue higher education. Insufficient state funding, on the other hand, leaves students and their families with higher tuition and debt, and thus threatens to put higher education—and the opportunities it offers—beyond the reach of those who cannot afford it.

More than half of our state’s public high school graduates who attend college enroll in a public college or university in Massachusetts. Students attending public postsecondary institutions are significantly more likely than those attending private ones to live and work in Massachusetts after graduation, contributing to our communities and our economy over the long term.

Organized as a series of charts, this paper details major trends since Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 in state support for our public colleges and universities, and how those changes have led to sharply increasing costs for students and families, which they pay for with increasing amounts of debt. On several measures we compare Massachusetts to other states.

We show that:

  • A well-educated workforce plays a crucial role in the economic strength of our state. Massachusetts has the best educated workforce in the country and the highest median hourly wage.
  • Deep cuts in state support for public higher education have contributed to some of the highest tuition and fees increases in the nation from 2001 to 2016.
  • Along with large cuts in state scholarship funding, these tuition and fee hikes have doubled the share of postsecondary education costs borne by students and their families, from about 30 percent to around 60 percent.
  • Students and families have paid these costs by borrowing more. Among students graduating from public 4-year postsecondary schools, average debt grew faster in Massachusetts than in all but one other state from 2004 (the earliest year for which data are available for most states) to 2016.
  • Average debt among state university and UMass graduates now almost equals the average debt among graduates of the state’s private colleges and universities.