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BOSTON — In an important step toward making community college free for all residents in Massachusetts, Senate leaders received a briefing on Wednesday on “Planning and Delivery of Free Community College in Massachusetts,” an interim report submitted to the Legislature that provides a menu of options for implementing universal free community college.

The report touts universal free community college as a potent driver for Massachusetts to become more competitive nationally, noting that it has the potential to drive employment opportunity, boost economic mobility, and help the population become more educated. The benefits have particular impact for people of color, those who have migrated to the state, and individuals from low-income backgrounds.

“Our Commonwealth has extensive opportunities to grow and become even more competitive at the national level. But to do it, we need people to be able to fill the long list of job openings in critical fields: nurses, educators, life-science experts, and more,” Senate President Karen Spilka said. “This interim report lays out a plan for filling those jobs and making our state more competitive and equitable by removing a major financial barrier for our students, enabling them to complete a degree and stay in Massachusetts. I’m grateful to the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges for their tremendous work on this, and I look forward to continuing on the path to deliver universal free community college.”

The report was conducted by the Massachusetts Assoc. of Community Colleges (MACC) and comes following an FY 2024 budget item that directed MACC to provide recommendations to the state for implementing free community college by fall of 2024.

The report presents three possible models for how Massachusetts can pursue free community college and highlights issues important to the delivery of high-quality education, including wraparound services, faculty and staff salaries, aging facilities and equipment, and workforce considerations.

“Massachusetts is leaping ahead to tackle college affordability and to expand access to public higher education. I am deeply grateful to Senate President Karen Spilka for her vision and her commitment to investing in one of our Commonwealth’s greatest equity engines,” said state Sen. Jo Comerford, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education. “This important report offers us pathways forward to make community college free for all, and to do so in a way that ensures student success, supports staff and faculty, is fiscally sustainable, maximizes the benefits to our Commonwealth, and offers Massachusetts residents a world-class education. Thank you to everyone who served on the advisory committee that produced this interim report.”

MassReconnect and free nursing at community colleges have been broadly cheered by educators and shown early signs of success. Community colleges in the Commonwealth saw an 8% single-year increase in enrollment, according to a recent report from the Department of Higher Education.

MACC is scheduled to deliver a final report to the Legislature by the end of April, after which the Senate and the House will discuss next steps towards delivering free community college.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s a significant investment: more than $20 million just for the first year. But it’s an investment that could bring a significant return.

That’s the hope, anyway, of Gov. Maura Healey and other state officials, who officially launched the initiative called MassReconnect with a press conference on Sept. 24 at MassBay Community College in Wellsley.

The program, quite simply, establishes free community college — covering not just tuition and fees, but books and supplies — for academically qualifying students age 25 and older.

The governor laid out the compelling rationale for the program at the event. “MassReconnect will be transformative for thousands of students, for our amazing community colleges, and for our economy,” she said. “It will bolster the role of community colleges as economic drivers in our state and help us better meet the needs of businesses to find qualified, well-trained workers. We can also make progress in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty by helping residents complete their higher-education credentials so they can attain good jobs and build a career path.”

Let’s consider those points one at a time.

Western Mass., where four of the state’s 15 community colleges — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — are located, needs them to be strong and vibrant to generate, and maintain, a strong pipeline of workers coming into myriad fields.

Meanwhile, at a time when businesses of all kinds are struggling to attract and retain talent, making it easier for non-traditional students — those who haven’t started in college, or who have started but haven’t completed, for one reason or another — to enter career pipelines could make a real difference in those companies’ growth, and even survival.

Meanwhile, Healey is right: there’s no doubt that education is a key factor in overcoming barriers to economic success; it isn’t hard to imagine that many students taking advantage of this program will represent the first generation of their family to attend college.

Holyoke Community College President George Timmons believes that “MassReconnect will enable our community colleges to do more of what we do best, which is serve students from all ages and all backgrounds and provide them with an exceptional education that leads to employment and, ultimately, a stronger economy and thriving region.”

MassReconnect is expected to support up to 8,000 community-college students in the first year, which could grow to closer to 10,000 students by FY 2025, depending on how many students take advantage of the new opportunity. There are approximately 700,000 Massachusetts residents who have some college credit but no degree. MassReconnect could help bring back these students to finish their degrees, with the additional funding and support they may have lacked the first time around.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges are a ticket to economic mobility for many residents. Nationally, employees who have earned their associate degree are paid 18% more than workers with only a high-school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As for those jobs, in July, there were more than 26,000 job postings in Massachusetts that specifically required an associate degree.

The hope is that MassReconnect will harness the power of community colleges by allowing workers to earn the training and education necessary to jump-start their career growth and reinforce a pipeline of skilled professionals entering the workforce. That’s what this is about, and why Healey and other proponents and believe the state’s investment will be more than justified by its return.

“MassReconnect will be a game changer for residents 25 and over in the Pioneer Valley and throughout the Commonwealth,” Greenfield Community College President Michelle Schutt said.

Let’s hope it changes the equation for employers — and the state’s entire economy — as well.