Not all free-tuition community college plans are equal

Mass. should push for a universal plan not limited by age

DESPITE LEADING the nation in practically every educational outcome, there’s one area where Massachusetts lags other states: free community college.

While more than half of US states offer some form of free college program, Massachusetts has fallen behind the curve. Given that the soaring cost of college is one of the most significant barriers to access and completion, that community college enrollments have plummeted since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the American economy requires increasing the number of people with college credentials, it’s critical that Massachusetts makes community college free–for all of its residents–as soon as possible.

Recognizing the importance of boosting the number of Bay Staters with college credentials, Gov. Maura Healey rightfully introduced a plan to make community college tuition-free. However, her proposed solution falls short of the scope of the problem facing Massachusetts residents. Healey’s proposal offers tuition-free community college to only adults over age 25 without a higher education credential. This plan, called MassReconnect, is modeled off of a program in Michigan, which has significant limitations in its ability to expand access to higher education and address workforce needs.

Not all free-tuition plans are created equal. Free college plans range in scope, support, and programmatic design. New Mexico made its two and four-year colleges and universities tuition-free to all state residents. Maine made two-year community colleges tuition-free for recent high school graduates. New York implemented a free-college scholarship that has been hampered by confusing eligibility and application requirements. Michigan itself has launched multiple initiatives that provide some state residents with tuition-free options to attend community college.

Michigan Reconnect, which offers free-tuition to Michganders over age 25 and inspired the proposed MassReconnect program, has helped nearly 19,700 individuals access free community college tuition, according to data received from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. However, the impact of Michigan Reconnect is limited by the program’s design: it only provides residents with free-tuition to in-district community colleges, and does not provide any help for anyone under age 25.

Michigan passed Reconnect as a bipartisan way to help some residents access tuition-free community college, a necessity given a divided state government in 2020 and 2021. But Massachusetts does not face the same political limitations.  And the reality is that Michigan Reconnect is an incomplete attempt to make community college tuition-free. Thus, Massachusetts should not use Michigan as a model to design its free-college plans.

Instead, Massachusetts should invest to make community colleges tuition-free to all of its residents. Straightforward free-tuition programs, particularly those that are first-dollar programs that waive tuition for students without considering other sources of financial aid– strongly motivate people to attend college. Research indicates that convoluted efforts to make college tuition free–like the current design of the proposed MassReconnect program–are limited in their ability to help students. In addition to the age requirement of Healey’s plan, MassReconnect is also designed as a last-dollar program, which means students have to access other forms of financial aid before Massachusetts will cover their remaining cost of community college tuition. Last-dollar programs diminish the impact of free-tuition plans and will not solve the scope of the problem facing Massachusetts.

To meet the moment, Massachusetts needs a first-dollar, tuition-free program for all residents statewide. Providing free community college to all state residents is the singular way Healey can help Massachusetts catch up with the states that are leading higher education policy. Massachusetts lawmakers need to understand that free community college tuition is the compromise position. What Massachusetts actually needs to solve the myriad of issues within its higher education system is much greater than free community college tuition.

Given that the full cost of college attendance–which includes student basic needs like housing, food, and transportation–is far greater than the cost of tuition, even the most comprehensive, ambitious efforts to make colleges and universities tuition-free are inherently limited. In the long run, Massachusetts needs to make its four-year and two-year colleges and universities tuition free, and it needs to increase other forms of aid to help students afford their basic needs. But for now, as the very first step in making college affordable, Massachusetts needs tuition-free community college for all of its residents. Anything short of universally free community college is a failure to meet the moment we face, and will set Massachusetts back relative to other states.

Chris Geary is a senior policy analyst at the Center on Education & Labor at New America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington,  DC, where he focuses on the intersection of higher education and labor policy. He previously served as a policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, a policy fellow in the mayor’s office in New Orleans, and a public school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisggeary.