Boston Just Got A Free College Plan. Can Western Mass, Too?

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker just announced a low-income, free-tuition program for the city of Boston that sounds like it came from the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Four years of college education in Massachusetts public colleges without tuition or mandatory fees for low income students eligible for federal Pell Grants.

The question many in western Massachusetts are asking is, “Can we get a piece of that, too?”

In a political turnabout, it is State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, who is expressing doubts about the program and how to pay for it.

Rosenberg also said he doubted that legislators from across the state would vote to fund the Boston-only program with state dollars.

“That’s a very preliminary proposal — there’s no information about how much it costs or how much the governor thinks the state should put in,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “I would consider it floating a balloon. There’s no meat on the bones at this point.”

James Peyser, Massachusetts Secretary of Education under Baker, said the state does have the resources to pursue the program this year by using funds from the MASSGrant program, which has a $95 million pool of money from state taxpayers.

“If the uptake on this is higher than expected, then we will go to the Legislature,” he said.

He said the Boston program, an extension of an existing city program to pay for community college for low-income high school graduates, could be extended to other communities, including those in Western Mass, but that those communities would need to make their own financial commitments, as well.

“We would be open to the conversation,” he said. “We have to ensure we are making promises we can keep within our fiscal constraints. That doesn’t mean that there’s not room for anyone else.”

The program, unveiled on May 30, is called Boston Bridge. Open to all 2017 Pell Grant eligible graduates of Boston public, charter, or parochial schools, the program would cover tuition and mandatory fees at one of three community colleges in or near Boston up until the associate’s degree level, and then tuition and mandatory fees at a public four-year institution until that student received their bachelor’s degree. Students would have to complete their degree within four-and-a-half years and also maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average to stay in the program.

Described in the release as a pilot program, it would apply only to 2017 graduates, and might not continue beyond that, according to state officials.

College affordability has long been in the news and was a major topic during the 2016 presidential election. Income is a significant barrier in completing bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the Pell Institute. Fewer than 20 percent of low income students — those eligible for federal Pell grants — earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, a little more than half the rate of their higher-income peers.

The program is an offshoot of Boston’s Tuition Free Community College program, which offers all income-eligible Boston public high school graduates three years of free tuition to the three community colleges most attended by Boston students: Roxbury, Bunker Hill, and Mass Bay, according to state officials.

The Boston Bridge program expands eligibility to students in charter and parochial schools, according to Peyser.

Rosenberg is focused on proposals in the Legislature to make community college free, and said that there may eventually be a proposal to extend that to the first two years of public state colleges and the university system.

“It is an aspiration and it is an expensive proposal,” he said.

He said one possible source of revenue for education is the so-called Fair Share Constitutional Amendment, which is being considered by the Legislature during the 2017-18 session. The amendment would assess an additional 4 percent tax on all state residents who earn more than $1 million. It would raise $2 billion for the state, according to Rosenberg.

However, a free-tuition proposal would be in competition with others, including simply funding the university system to the point that raises negotiated through collective bargaining are covered. Rosenberg said that right now, the Senate is the only body in state government proposing to fund those raises. The governor and House versions of the budget do not.

“We’re not even paying the basic budget at this point, never mind an expansive proposal like no student charges to go to community college,” Rosenberg said.

Peyser said talking about the higher education budget did not have to preclude talking about new low-income tuition programs.

“There’s always a conversation around these matters, whether in higher education or K-12, about how much the state can afford,” Peyser said. “We can have both conversations at the same time.

Some western Massachusetts mayors are interested to see how the Boston program does.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno wrote in an email statement that education plays a key role in ending what he called the “vicious cycle of poverty and public safety issues.”

“We’d love to entertain and have the Boston model,” he wrote. “If a sound financial funding plan can be achieved, it’s a wise investment.”

Easthampton Mayor Karen Cadieux called it an exciting program, but said it would be nice to see it in the rest of the state outside Boston’s borders.

“Being in Western Mass, we think of ourselves a lot as forgotten,” she said. “Boston is our capital and the largest city, but everyone will be looking for the same opportunity.”

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said he did not know how municipalities would be able to pay for such a program, but that it is something the state should aspire to.

“I think we should definitely make access to college free for all students at our public colleges and universities,” he said. “I’m definitely supportive of that concept.”

Mandates on providing early childhood education through high school limit government’s ability to pay for higher education at the municipal level, he said.

“I don’t see a mechanism that we would be able to use to pay for it at the municipal level,” he said.

Cadieux, Narkewicz, and Sarno all called attention to programs in their cities designed to connect high school graduates to the start of college. Easthampton and Northampton both have programs offering high school students access to community college courses for credit. Springfield has its Springfield Promise Last Dollar scholarship initiative, offering some money to high school seniors who apply and are accepted.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

Share This Post On

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest stories and posts from the Advocate. 


You have Successfully Subscribed!