LOWELL -- UMass President Robert Caret says it's time for legislators to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to funding public higher education.
Caret said he has met with more than half of the state's 200 legislators since being named president of the UMass system in January, and they all have called funding public higher education a priority.
He made his comments yesterday during a roundtable discussion with reporters and editors at UMass Lowell's Allen House. Rising student fees and tuition bills dominated the hourlong session.
In recent years, Massachusetts has fallen to 47th among the nation's 50 states in funding public higher education per capita.
Thirty years ago, the state provided 90 percent of the funding for the University of Lowell; today, that figure has fallen to 18 percent.
That decrease in funding, coupled with the university footing 70 percent of construction costs to the state's 30 percent in the last five years, has led to an increase in student costs. The total cost for tuition, fees, room and board at UMass Lowell this year for an in-state student is $20,817.
"This state, unlike any other state I know of, allows campuses to build academic buildings with their own money," said Caret, who has worked in public-university systems in Maryland and California. "If the state could pick up 50 percent, we would be in good shape."
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said the university has borrowed $25 million for the $70 million Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center being built on North Campus, a project that "in every other state" would be paid for by the state.
Despite rising tuition and fees, Meehan urges parents not to be frightened away by the "sticker cost."
Seventy percent of UML students receive financial aid, with 50 percent of those students receiving significant aid.
"People can be misled by the sticker price, but we do a lot of fundraising for scholarships," he said, adding the school is also recruiting out-of-state and International students to boost revenue.
Private universities, Caret said, have about 30 percent of their students who pay full tuition and fees, and use that money to fund the education of the other 70 percent -- a "redistribution of wealth."
"We are doing the same thing now, which was not done 20 years ago," he said.
Caret added Maryland, where he worked as president of Towson University -- a 21,000-student public university in suburban Baltimore -- from 2003 until this year, is in much better shape. Gov. Martin O'Malley froze the $7,400 tuition to state universities for three years, allowing the schools to increase it at a maximum of 3 percent annually after the thaw.
Yesterday marked Caret's fourth visit to the Lowell campus. He took over the presidency from Jack Wilson on July 1.
He grew up in Biddeford, Maine, a mill town where his parents ran a small restaurant that fed mill workers three meals a day. As in Lowell, the mills moved south, leaving the town barren, with more than 200,000 square feet of empty mill space.
"Biddeford has been much slower than Lowell in reinventing itself," Caret said. "Driving through Lowell, I see it is much more lively than Biddeford."
He attributes some of that vibrancy to UMass Lowell.
"Universities play a key role in economic vitality and that certainly is true in Lowell," Caret said, adding he has seen similar success in San Jose, Calif., where he served as president of San Jose State University.
"San Jose was a 29,000-student urban campus and there were more drug dealers on the streets in the early morning than students," he said, adding the university helped revitalize the downtown through the influx of capital, which began with building a new library. Subsequently, City Hall moved back downtown and other projects got off the ground to serve the student population.
"I am excited about the energy he brings," Meehan said of Caret. "I think he will lead UMass to the next level."