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On May 6, state Senate leaders revealed a new proposal for tuition-free, universal community college for all Massachusetts residents, dubbed MassEducate.

The program is an attempt to increase the state’s workforce and to expand higher education opportunities for students across the state.

Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) said the announcement will “shift conversations about college from ‘I wish,’ to ‘I will,’ for thousands of students and families in Massachusetts.”

She added, “We are investing in talent that is right here at home, and opening the workforce floodgates to employers who are starved for graduates, so Massachusetts keeps the competitive edge that we pride ourselves in.”

State Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), who chairs the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, talked about the importance of free community college in Massachusetts.

“I’m thrilled that we have taken access to higher education to the next level, as this initiative will bolster our educated workforce and lay the foundation for generations to come. Tuition free community college impacts individuals most in need and whom otherwise would not be afforded this opportunity,” he said.

With the establishment of MassEducate, the state would invest $75.5 million into covering tuition and fees for residents and offer a stipend of up to $1,200 for books, supplies or other costs to students who make 125% or less of median income in the state. The plan is scheduled to be included in the chamber’s fiscal year 2025 budget and would provide eligible students this fall if approved.

Reminder Publishing reached out to state Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) as well as Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College for reaction to the proposal.

Comerford’s reaction

In an interview with Reminder Publishing, Comerford said that MassEducate is part of the state Senate’s “cradle-to-career” initiative reflected in this year’s budget, where significant investments are proposed for early childcare, K-12 and for higher public education.

A greater investment in higher public education, according to Comerford, significantly supplements equity goals in higher education and the state’s workforce.

“We know that giving people access to excellent higher education further vaults them on a path to achieving their own wishes and dreams,” said Comerford, who serves as the Senate chair of the Committee on Higher Education. “We also know that their earning power with an associate’s degree or a four-year degree or an advanced degree exponentially increases strengthening their own economic security, and hopefully their own personal fulfillment in terms of getting to the careers they care about.”

Comerford emphasized the importance of providing adequate resources to community colleges so they can continue to be “nimble” and “responsive” to the local and regional business community and meet the workforce needs in the region.

“There are ample job opportunities,” Comerford said. “The skills are developing, the training is developing and we need to make sure that our training institutions have everything they need to be able to resource this rising generation of workers.”

Comerford said that MassEducate could be implemented as early as this fall if the Senate provisions pass by that time period. She added that the provision will be up for debate by the end of this month.

“I’m very optimistic that it could be implemented by the fall,” Comerford said. “We’ve been working pretty closely with the college presidents.”

STCC reaction

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook expressed nothing but excitement after hearing about the proposed bill.

Cook talked about how MassReconnect improved the enrollment at STCC and he can only imagine MassEducate increasing the enrollment more.

MassReconnect is the law that says Massachusetts residents 25 years of age or older can earn an associate degree or certificate for free at any of the 15 public community colleges in the state.

Cook said, “We’ve certainly been excited about MassReconnect this past year. So obviously the version of free community college for adults 25 or older has really been helpful for us. Certainly, at STCC it helped change a 10 year declining enrollment trend so the fact that MassEducate would really open that door even wider to everyone is incredible. We are very excited. I think that would be an understatement otherwise.”

Besides what the proposed bill means to the college, Cook also said the proposed bill gives all students the new opportunity to attend a community college.

Cook said, “We have middle names for a reason and this type of policy change, and this type of funding really encourages so many to recognize that college is for them, college can be for them and community colleges are that onboard, that access point. We know easily 50% of our students are low-income, this is what we call Pell-eligible students, and we think this will continue to invite even more families to consider us as an option.”

Although the bill has not been officially passed, Cook said if it is the college will be ready to adapt.

Cook added, “Just like last year, it’s not done until it’s done, until the governor signs the budget into law. We will certainly make do when and how things land. Community colleges are flexible and we will certainly stay nimble and we will manage. This is a very exciting time for our segment. If this comes to pass, we will make sure we work through it.”

HCC reaction

Holyoke Community College Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Mark Hudgik told Reminder Publishing MassEducate builds off the success of MassReconnect and has the potential to help those in the 18-24 age range if money is a barrier for furthering their education.

“We know a lot of younger students are really skeptical what they’re going to get or what the perceived cost of education would be, so I think it makes it much easier to take that next step knowing that the commonwealth is going to support them financially through their associate degree,” Hudgik said.

Hudgik added the governor had convened a working group giving many community colleges representation to give feedback on MassReconnect and what could be improved upon in making education more accessible.

“As the legislative process plays out there will continue to be more conversations,” he added.

Hudgik explained an expanded program like MassEducate allows community colleges to support the needs of the region.

“What’s highly needed in Boston — a lot of health care, a lot of tech jobs — may not be what’s needed in Western Mass. We have health care, but we also have early childhood education, we have needs in the hospitality industry and colleges tend to cater towards their community,” Hudgik said. “We offer degrees in programs that allow students to transfer to any of the four-year institutions, but we also have [a] very targeted certificate in the associate degree career program that are meant to address the needs of the local area that are responsive to what employers are looking for.”

Hudgik said investments in residents like this show the governor’s administration is interested in supporting communities on a community level.

“We encourage anyone that thinks they want to become a student to reach out to the admissions office, have a conversation with a counselor and see what’s possible,” Hudgik said.

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