A Step in the Right Direction
Gov. Maura Healey presented her first budget a few weeks back, and it contains some proposals that could help the state navigate its way out of an ongoing workforce crisis.
Chief among them is something called MassReconnect, which would fund free community-college certificates and degrees to Commonwealth residents who are 25 years and older and have not yet earned a college degree.
Based on initiatives in Michigan and Tennessee, MassReconnect actually goes further than those programs by covering more than just tuition; it also covers mandatory fees, books, and various support services. It is designed to remove barriers to getting the college degree that is needed to succeed in most jobs today, and it holds significant promise to do just that.
So do some of Healey’s other proposed investments in higher education, including a 3% increase in public college and university base spending, as well as $59 million to stabilize tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts and other public institutions.
But it is free community college that is getting the most attention, and rightfully so. In fact, Senate President Karen Spilka has been working on legislation to achieve just that, saying that reducing the cost of getting a degree will help close equity gaps and build a more educated workforce to meet the needs of important industries in Massachusetts..
Indeed, while the bottom-line cost of a community-college education is much lower than at four-year schools, it is still a burden to many and a roadblock when it comes to attaining not just a job, but a career. In that sense, this proposal could open doors to individuals who have seen them closed for one reason or another, while holding considerable potential to bolster the state’s 15 community colleges and the state’s economy as a whole.
Indeed, the Commonwealth’s community colleges, long considered a key component in any region’s economic-development strategy, and especially here in Western Mass., have been struggling of late, and for many reasons.
Smaller high-school graduating classes are just one of them. A strong job market has traditionally had the effect of impacting enrollment at community colleges — they thrived during the Great Recession, for example — and that pattern has held for roughly the past decade or so. Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.
This region needs its four community colleges — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — and it needs them to be strong and vibrant if it is to create, and maintain, a strong pipeline of workers coming into fields ranging from healthcare to cannabis to hospitality.
Meanwhile, community college serves as a place to start one’s secondary education. Many graduates of these schools move on to four-year colleges and degrees that lead to a wider range of job, and career, possibilities. But first, students need to begin.
That’s why this proposal holds such potential. It is designed for non-traditional students, those who haven’t started in college, or who have started but haven’t completed, for one reason or another. These are the individuals who hold the most promise for bringing some real relief to the region’s ongoing workforce crisis, one that is impacting businesses in every sector of the economy.
The concept of free community college has its skeptics, and some will wonder where the money will come from and whether the state can afford to do this.
Looking at matters from an economic-development lens, however, one could argue that the state can’t afford not to do it.