In The People's Blog

This session we are going to make community college free in Massachusetts. It’s an incredible opportunity, and a very complex policy that we have to get right. As Senate Chair of the Higher Education Committee, I’m honored to be in the thick of this work.

Last year, the Governor proposed the MassReconnect program, to make community college tuition free for residents over age 25. Over 4500 students are taking advantage of the new scholarship aid. Now, the Senate President is committed to free community college for all. 

I am pleased to serve on a working group, led by the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges (MACC), looking at how to set up a free community college program. In early 2024 we released our initial recommendations. 

Yet, shortly after these recommendations were released, critics pounced in Boston Globe and Commonwealth Magazine op-eds. In response, I authored an op-ed discussing seven reasons why free community college in the Commonwealth just makes sense. My article was published in the CommonWealth Beacon on February 11. 

Read on for the full text below. 


Community colleges are engines of equity, helping to deliver the unparalleled promise of public higher education in the Commonwealth.

Yet, after the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges released initial recommendations for free community college, critics pounced — omitting the fact that two-thirds of states in the US already offer some form of free community college.

Critics argue that free community college will somehow “divert” students from four-year to two-year colleges “to the likely detriment of those students.”

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the not-so-veiled disparagement of community colleges — and focus on seven reasons why free community college in the Commonwealth makes sense.

First, it builds on what we have already started. The new MassReconnect program, offering free community college for those age 25 and older, and free nursing programs at all community college campuses, are very likely responsible for the first rebound in undergraduate enrollment at public higher education institutions in nine years.

Community colleges saw an 8 percent increase in enrollment in fall 2023 (a mere handful of weeks after these policies became law), while state universities and the University of Massachusetts system saw their smallest enrollment declines in several years. This early data contradicts the claims that community college increases are “cannibalizing” four-year enrollments. Research in other states indicates that the second year of free community college brings actual increases in enrollment in both two-year and four-year institutions.

Second, “universally free” is a clear message. Clear messages are effective. Remember that the Legislature and the Healey administration made school meals universally free for a similar reason — it’s a barrier buster.

Third, community colleges serve a larger percentage of students of color and low-income students compared to four-year public institutions. Our Commonwealth’s inequities are well documented. We should be leaning into these campuses with as much support as we can muster, not calling them out as lesser alternatives. Let’s remember research has shown that comprehensive support, coupled with targeted financial assistance, can help close racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

Fourth, free community college is not being proposed in a vacuum. The Legislature and the Healey administration have demonstrated that they support investments in both community college and four-year students. The additional $84 million in financial aid funding included in this year’s state budget covers all tuition and fees for Pell-eligible students at any public higher institution and makes the students eligible for up to $1,200 for books and supplies — while almost halving out-of-pocket costs for middle-income students. Gov. Maura Healey has proposed sustaining this financial aid expansion in her fiscal year 2025 budget, benefitting upwards of 25,000 Massachusetts students at a time when the cost of attending a community college, state university, or any of the UMass campuses has become too high for working families and historically marginalized students.

Fifth, critics seem to forget that community colleges have long been a more affordable public higher education alternative. It is only at this moment, when a generational opportunity is on the table, that the accusations fly about possible investments in these institutions nudging students away from a four-year education.

I’d much rather focus on the great potential that lies within work to strengthen the state’s credit transfer program, expand articulation agreements between two- and four-year institutions, introduce a universal FAFSA initiative, and grow the nation-leading SUCCESS program that supports students with wraparound services. We can and should expect persistence in school and transfer rates to increase with greater attention paid to helping students take this path, if they choose.

Which brings us to the sixth reason. Just as some students will reap the benefit of a smoother glide path to a four-year education, others will choose a two-year education. Should they do so, they are 12 to 18 percentage points more likely to enter a workforce that is hungry for their 21st century skills. We can and must focus on strengthening the connections between campuses and employers.

Seventh, critics worry that a potential infusion of funds at a community college would benefit students who could afford to pay. I worry about that too — even while believing in the power of universality to break down barriers. It’s why I’m interested in an equity-focused approach for the lowest-income students — with the state helping to address more of the total cost of college for those with the highest financial barriers.

I’ve been asked if I view an investment in community colleges as competition for the larger ideals that colleagues and I laid out in The CHERISH Act — for debt-free higher education at all public higher education institutions. I have one word for them: No. 

We can and must continue to invest in the broader, 29-campus, world-class ecosystem of Massachusetts higher education — including faculty and staff salaries and health care, building infrastructure, and climate resilience. Bolstering institutions that welcome the greatest diversity of our students makes sense right now, as an extension of what’s already working.

Community college students deserve the chance to learn and to climb a meaningful career ladder with a well-lit path to economic mobility. 

Investments made today will be directly linked to their success and to the long-term well-being of public higher education and our state — for generations to come.


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