For the first time in more than a decade, undergraduates at all Massachusetts public colleges and universities will see no increase in tuition bills this fall, under a state budget that boosts higher education spending by nearly 17 percent.
The sharp increase in funding follows years of waning state support, which has steadily shifted more of the cost of attending college to students and their families. Five years ago, tuition and fees paid for 43 percent of academic programs at the University of Massachusetts, while the state assumed 57 percent. By this year, the percentage had reversed.
The yearly increases forced many students into heavier borrowing, and led university leaders to step up lobbying for the state to assume more of the burden. Robert Caret, president of the five-campus UMass system, called on lawmakers to move toward a “50-50” split in funding, under which the state and students would provide equal shares.
For its part, the university agreed to freeze tuition and mandatory fees for the first time in a dozen years. In a rare consensus, the nine state universities, which received a $15 million increase, and the 15 community colleges have also agreed to hold tuition and fees steady.
Lawmakers have indicated support for a second budget increase next year, which would allow the schools to again hold the line on costs.
“If we freeze it for two years, we’ll see the average debt drop,” Caret said. “It will make a huge difference.”
The freeze does not apply to out-of-state students, for whom tuition is significantly higher.
In the past five years, the average debt for UMass graduates has risen by more than one-third to more than $28,000, according to university figures.
The budget marks a major legislative breakthrough for the public universities, which have fought an uphill battle on Beacon Hill in recent years, and a growing recognition of the importance of the system to the state’s economy.
“To be able to hold fees flat this year is a big victory,” said Dan Magazu, a spokesman for Framingham State University. “It’s obviously great news for our students and their families.”
Like most of its peers, Framingham State, where tuition and fees total $8,000 a year for in-state students. When room and board are included, costs top $17,000.
Costs vary among the public colleges and universities. Tuition and fees at UMass Amherst, the flagship of the state system, are $13,200 a year for in-state students, and more than $23,000 with room and board. UMass Boston tuition and fees run to $12,000.
State Representative Tom Sannicandro, the House chairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on higher education, said lawmakers recognized the growing importance of the public college system to the state's economy, and the need to assist students from low-income families.
“We absolutely need to be spending more money on higher education,” he said. “The more college degrees you have, the better everybody does.”
He said the improved economy allowed the increase, and that legislators were impressed by the schools’ pledge to freeze student costs.
Governor Deval Patrick has not signed the new budget, but any changes are not expected to include education.
From 2008 to 2013, state funding for UMass dropped from $484 million to $439 million, while enrollment surged to a record 70,000 students.
That funding decline mirrored a national trend, as cash-strapped states pushed more of college costs to students and their families. Nationally, states are spending 28 percent less per student than they did in 2008, according to a study released in March by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
When adjusted for inflation, per-student spending in Massachusetts had dropped by 37 percent, 10th-highest in the country.
“Higher education has been one of the real big losers,” said Richard Freeland, the state’s higher education commissioner. “There’s been a steady of erosion of support.”
This year’s budget, he said, marks a dramatic reversal of that trend, and gives students a respite from steady cost increases.
“Student fee hikes have pretty much been the norm,” said Alex Kulenovic, organizing director at the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, an advocacy group of students, faculty and staff. “They’ve been going up like clockwork.”
Kulenovic credited Caret for the “50-50” proposal, which he said clearly illustrated the connection between state funding and tuition hikes. With more students drawn to public colleges for their lower cost, a renewed investment in the system was critical, he said.
“Keeping the system affordable has become a huge priority,” he said.
Phil Geoffroy, a rising junior at UMass Lowell, said the price freeze was encouraging. For students who are working extra hours and borrowing the maximum to pay their way through school, any savings is welcome.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” he said.