December 25, 2017
Economic Forecast 2018

Central Mass. colleges will face funding, recruiting challenges in 2018

Associate Vice-President of Facilities Management Jon Wyman (left) and Dean of Students Jason Zelesky, outside the MWCC Bemis Student Center, one of the few significant higher ed construction projects in 2017.

In 2017, Central Massachusetts colleges took a pause on construction that helped transform the look of many campuses.

The most notable new space from this year was Mount Wachusett Community College's Bemis Student Center, built in just 100 days this summer, but the bulk of the new construction will come next year. Highlights include Worcester Polytechnic Institute opening its $49-million Foisie Innovation Studio & Messenger Hall in fall 2018 and College of the Holy Cross opening its $95-million Luth Athletic Complex.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute (from left) master's candidate Yao Shen, professor Yuxiang “Shawn” Liu, and Ph.D. candidate Chaoyang Ti work on a fiber optic tweezer device.

The upcoming year will be one in which smaller campuses struggle with declining interest from international students, finding the right balance between speech rights and harmful actions, and budget challenges from the state force more belt-tightening at UMass Medical School and state universities in Fitchburg, Framingham and Worcester.

International students look elsewhere

A survey released in November by the Institute of International Education found an average of 7 percent in a decline of international students enrolling in American colleges. The trend started in the fall of 2016, as international enrollment flattened. This year, more than half of colleges cited the visa application process or visa denials, and the social and political environment in the U.S. as reasons for the decline.

If there's a bright spot, it's in New England, where enrollment was up 2 percent, the only region to still see an increase, according to the Institute of International Education. In other areas, the drop was far more severe: 20 percent in the region including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, and 16 percent in two regions covering much of the Rockies and Great Plains areas.

Potentially uneasy campus climates

Colleges in other parts of the country have had to find the right balance between speeches guaranteed by the First Amendment and those inciting hateful statements.

Framingham State University found five messages with racial slurs targeting black students starting in October, and asked the FBI to help investigate.

Worcester State University students outside the bursar office, waiting to pay their tuition.

Central Massachusetts colleges have, in many cases, far to go with diversifying their student bodies. Of the area's largest schools, Framingham State and Fitchburg State have the most diversity, as the only schools with Hispanic, Asian and black students comprising more than 20 percent of enrollment, said the U.S. Department of Education.

Less state aid

State aid formerly paying a majority of college costs now covers just a fraction. Funding has dried up, not just in Massachusetts but nationally, as states are strapped for money to meet other pressing needs.

From 2008 to 2016, higher education funding in Massachusetts dropped by 16 percent when adjusted for inflation, or more than $1,600 per student, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Massachusetts even cut less than most states.

In the meantime, tuition rose by 29 percent at Massachusetts public schools during that time, according to the center. The issue may be likely to get worse before it gets better for schools like Worcester State, Framingham State, Fitchburg State and UMass Medical School.

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