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Financial aid increase needed.

Byline: Richard Doherty

In February, when most of the commonwealth's residents were stymied by the record snowfall, more than 150 college and university students made their way to Beacon Hill to personally advocate for continued funding of need-based financial aid.

So many young people's dreams of gaining a college education depend on them having access to such assistance. Their need for aid is critical; their advocacy is essential, their gratitude is sincere, and their voices need to be heard.

These students, from colleges such as Holy Cross and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, displayed living proof as to the importance of financial aid -- as they will write the future of our state, its economy and its vibrancy.

Thankfully, last year the Legislature increased the need-based financial aid line item of the state budget by $3 million. This was an important and commendable step, but Massachusetts is still significantly behind the national average need-based award.

The financial aid line item funds a variety of grant and scholarship programs for Massachusetts residents attending college in Massachusetts, including the MassGrant program -- the commonwealth's principal need-based grant.

Even with last year's funding increase, the state scholarship programs have essentially been level-funded over the past decade. This, and the fact that more students are eligible for need-based aid, have reduced the real buying power of these scholarships.

The fiscal 2016 budget process is currently in the hands of the Ways and Means Committee, whose members came to Greenfield Community College recently to solicit public opinion.

The Association for Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM) offered testimony that commended the Legislature's success last year in increasing aid, while also making the case for additional support.

AICUM represents the interests of 59 independent colleges and universities throughout the commonwealth, the 280,000 students attending those institutions and the nearly 85,000 people working at them. AICUM also is the primary sponsor of the student financial aid advocacy day each February. This activism is essential as more students need grants to keep college affordable.

In the past twelve months, three separate independent commissions (the Subcommittee on Student Loan and Debt, the Higher Education Finance Commission, and the Special Commission on Educational Scholarships) produced reports that recommend a substantial increase in funding for need-based scholarship programs.

A recent report issued by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, revealed that Massachusetts trails all states except Arkansas in the average award given to eligible students.

We recognize that the Legislature faces many difficult budget decisions, with higher education funding being one of many critical priorities. There is no greater need in higher education than providing opportunity to those talented students desiring, but unable to afford, a quality education.

AICUM believes a reasonable path for the FY 16 budget would be to move Massachusetts closer to the national average for scholarship awards by increasing the aid by $6.4 million. This would continue the state's positive momentum from recent years.

Massachusetts is home to many of the top colleges and universities in the world and we take great pride in the high quality of education that our students receive. The return on investing in our students accrues many times over, as talented graduates help to keep and attract companies, innovate new technologies, advance efforts to cure diseases, make Massachusetts their home, and strengthen our communities.

A properly funded financial aid program will send the right message to hardworking students that the commonwealth supports them and wants them to reach their full potential -- and to do so right here in Massachusetts.

Richard Doherty is president of the Association for Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM).
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Author:Doherty, Richard
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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