By Scott McLennan
K eeping up the momentum from a campaign that yielded a historic increase in state funding for preK- 12 schools, MTA members
and their Fund our Future coalition partners are now
focusing on passage of the Cherish Act, which will
address problems created by more than 20 years of
underfunding public colleges and universities in
The campaign has identified three main areas
of public higher education in desperate need of
substantial funding increases: affordability, adjunct
justice, and capital debt relief, which would allow
campuses to reinvest in full-time faculty and staff.
Adjusted for inflation, allocations for public
higher education are down by 32 percent per student
since 2001. The negative trend has resulted in
massive cost shifts to students and their families
and led to a ballooning debt problem for those who
attend public colleges and universities. Accessibility
is a major issue for Massachusetts students — and
the amount of debt they take on has risen faster than
in 48 other states over the past decade.
Pittsfield educator Tyler Ramsay got two
undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree from
UMass Amherst, graduating in 2017 with $100,000 in
debt. He said that expense restricted where he could
afford to work, as he found salaries too low or housing
costs too high in the districts offering him jobs.
To make ends meet after graduation, he worked
as a substitute teacher and at a computer store,
often leaving his school assignment at 2:30 p.m.
and starting his second job at 4 p.m. Before finally
finding a full-time job in Pittsfield, Ramsay would
rack up 65-hour workweeks, with few days off.
“I believe that if someone emerges from college
with three degrees and four certifications, his or
her salary should be able to cover student loan
payments,” Ramsay said. “This issue speaks to a
lot of problems that circle the problem of student
debt: teacher salaries, affordable housing, relocation
assistance and contracts for substitute teachers.”
On public higher education campuses, adjunct
faculty and part-time staff educate the vast majority
of students. Although they are well qualified,
adjuncts are poorly paid and have limited access to
health benefits and job security.
Rosemarie Freeland, vice president of the
Massachusetts Community College Council and a
professional staff member at Greenfield Community
College, likened the situation to a “gig economy”
in that it disregards educators’ professionalism.
Freeland said the drastic reduction in full-time staff
and faculty on community college campuses has had
two profound impacts.
First, students are given less access to advisory
and support programs. Adjuncts and part-time staff
typically do not have those responsibilities or the
time to fulfill them because many work on more than
one campus. Second, they usually do not participate
in campus governance so there are fewer seats at the
table where decisions are made and fewer people
filling those seats.
“Faculty and staff voices are eliminated when we
do not have enough full-time workers,” Freeland said.
The impact of capital debt on the UMass Boston
campus has been well documented in news stories
about cuts to staff and programs. But the problem
is now widespread, since costs once covered by the
state have become the responsibility of each campus.
Every dollar needed for capital debt and building
maintenance translates into less money for rebuilding
the ranks of full-time faculty and staff and investing
in programs that help students graduate successfully
and on time.
“Access to public education is a right that extends
from prekindergarten through higher education,” said
MTA President Merrie Najimy. “We need to build
a bridge from our work that resulted in the Student
Opportunity Act to the goals of the Cherish Act.”
MTA members will have several opportunities
to advocate for the Cherish Act (S.741/H.1214)
this winter and spring as the state budget is being
set. Community forums will highlight the problems
caused by chronic underfunding, and MTA higher
education members will attend meetings with
preK- 12 members to explain how passage of the
bill will help all workers and students.
Public Higher Education Advocacy Day is set
for March 2 at the State House, and MTA members
will join students in meeting with legislators to
advocate for public colleges and universities.
Members who cannot attend will have other
opportunities to convey their views to legislators.
The coalition is also organizing other events,
such as a “debtors’ march” around Beacon Hill.
The legislation calls for an overall $600 million
additional investment in public higher education over
the next five years, including an installment in fiscal
2021 of $120 million over the current budget.
“This is an issue that affects every MTA member
— not just those working at public colleges and
universities,” said MTA Vice President Max Page.
“We have members struggling with student debt.
We have members working with students who need
an accessible pathway to a college degree. We have
members thinking about how they will afford to
educate their own children.”
Given what it took to win the Student Opportunity
Act campaign, educator and student engagement are
crucial for the challenge that lies ahead. “We saw the
vital role that activism played during the campaign to
win $2 billion in new funding for preK-to- 12 schools,”
Najimy said. “We must now replicate that effort and
champion the Red For Higher Ed movement to create
a more just, equitable and affordable public higher
education system in the state.”
MTA members and allies repeatedly made their presence felt in the State House last year as
they demanded passage of two priority bills: the Student Opportunity Act and the Cherish
Act. With the preK- 12 legislation signed into law, the focus is now on winning passage of the
Cherish Act, which would bring crucial funding to the state’s public colleges and universities.
Public Higher Education Advocacy Day
When: Monday, March 2
9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Where: State House
What: An annual event that highlights
the pressing issues facing public higher
education. MTA members are encouraged to
participate — either in person or via outreach
activities now being organized. Lunch will
be provided, and transportation to the State
House will be available.
Register at: Massteacher.org/RedForHigherEd