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Should Massachusetts public colleges and universities be tuition-free?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.


Natalie Higgins

State representative, Leominster Democrat, former executive director of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts

Natalie HigginsEd Collier

I am a proud first-generation college student, and graduate of UMass Amherst. My younger brother earned his associate’s degree from MassBay Community College. Thanks to our parents’ dedication to make sure we had more opportunities than they had, we earned our degrees without taking on student debt.

Our story is not the norm. The average graduate in Massachusetts is left with a student loan burden of $33,256. Graduates in Massachusetts who attended a public institution are more likely to incur student debt, and in higher amounts relative to their college costs, than those who attended private ones. The average student debt grew faster in Massachusetts than in all but one other state from 2004-2016, and more than 855,000 Massachusetts residents owe student debt.


Debt-free public higher education was a reality for the majority of Massachusetts students as late as 1988 (the year I was born), when the MassGrant covered 80 percent of tuition and fees at public institutions. Today, the maximum MassGrant covers less than 14 percent of tuition and fees at UMass Amherst. And higher education funding has not recovered since sharp cuts in 2001, with per student funding down 32 percent and student scholarships also dropping 32 percent between 2001-2018. A UMass Amherst student has to work more than 23 hours per week, just to cover tuition and mandatory fees, never mind the other costs of attendance, such as housing, food, textbooks, and transportation. Just adding room and board brings that to 44 hours each week.

Debt-free public higher education is an important investment in our communities. Among Massachusetts high school graduates who attend college, 62.6 percent choose a public college or university. Ninety percent of public higher education graduates stay in Massachusetts, according to 2014 figures. This is also an equity issue. While more than 43 percent of Massachusetts residents hold a bachelor’s degree, many Gateway Cities have college completion rates half that, including Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, and Lawrence. Massachusetts is home to one of the nation’s highest-paid workforces because of college attainment, and we need to ensure Massachusetts residents in low-income communities and communities of color have that same access.



Charles Chieppo

Senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank; Needham resident

Charles ChieppoHandout

There are few words in the English language that are as seductive as “free.” Despite the word’s obvious appeal, there are often better ways to achieve policy goals than to make things free. Such is the case with public higher education.

The annual cost of in-state tuition and mandatory fees at Massachusetts public colleges and universities is about $1.6 billion. Rather than simply making the schools free and forcing taxpayers to cover that entire amount, it would be a far better idea to provide relief based on need.

State colleges and universities should apply a sliding scale under which families would pay what they can afford. This would indeed translate to free public higher education for students from needy families, with no debt to cloud their futures.

Simply making public higher education free for all Massachusetts students accepted to our public colleges and universities amounts to a massive transfer of public dollars to affluent families. It forces Massachusetts taxpayers to make up the entire $1.6 billion in lost revenue. Reducing that tax burden by allowing the wealthy to shoulder the (quite reasonable) cost of in-state public higher education would be far more prudent.


Consider the related issue of student loan costs. US Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed forgiving up to $50,000 in debt for households with annual incomes of less than $250,000. But the Brookings Institution found that under such a plan, the bottom 60 percent of borrowers in terms of income would see only about a third of the benefits. The rest would go to borrowers in the top two income quintiles.

The same concept applies here. In a wealthy state like Massachusetts, the families of many students accepted into our public colleges and universities can comfortably afford tuition and mandatory fees, and it’s far fairer to ask them to pay than to pass the bill on to taxpayers who are, on average, less affluent.

Implementing a means-based sliding scale for tuition and mandatory fees at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts would improve social mobility and make higher education more accessible to low-income residents without shifting the financial burden from affluent families to state taxpayers.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.

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