Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka kicked off the new legislative session Wednesday by proposing free community college for the state’s residents.
“Community college students are often working parents, recent immigrants and those from low-income backgrounds,” Spilka said, according to prepared remarks shared with the Globe. “They are the very people we picture when we think of the words ‘American Dream’ and ‘opportunity.’ ‘’
Community college leaders applauded the remarks in interviews with the Globe and said they are eager to see details of the proposal.
“The details are going to be critical for the success of the proposed legislation, but this is a great initial step to recognize the role of community colleges in the state of Massachusetts,” said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College. “Community colleges educate our local citizens across the Commonwealth so being able to help support this vehicle will help the state becoming a national leader [for] public higher education.”
A spokesperson from Spilka’s office said no legislation has been filed yet, but the Senate leader “looks forward to working with stakeholders and her Senate colleagues to craft and advance legislation.”
Spilka’s remarks come as most community colleges across the state continue to lose students because of the high cost of living and demographic declines in the number of college-aged students. The pandemic exacerbated enrollment losses by prompting students to step away from their studies to earn a salary or care for family members.
Higher education experts also say the rising cost of higher education in Massachusetts deters students. Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute, a Boston research center focused on higher education, said community college tuition and fees in Massachusetts are 47 percent above the national average.
In October, then-candidate Maura Healey said she intended to start a program to fund free community college for students over 25.
Removing community college tuition costs could encourage more students to consider education beyond high school, said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges.
“This is the exact direction the Commonwealth should be going in,” Mackinnon said. “Massachusetts has long prided itself as a pioneer in education, and to think [education] should stop at Grade 12 makes no sense. We are finally starting to see some recognition of that.”
Some private college leaders opposed free community college when the Biden administration proposed a plan in 2021 to provide two years of free community college to all eligible students; that effort later stalled. The four-year, private colleges continue to advocate instead for expanding the federal Pell Grant program, which is designed to help low-income students afford college.
“We support searching for ways to help all Massachusetts students who want a higher education find a path to a college degree,” said Sonya Hagopian, spokesperson for the The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts. “We look forward to working with Senate President Spilka on the Senate’s Student Opportunity Plan.”
Community college advocates, for their part, said that free college would benefit the first-generation and low-income students they serve and help train the state’s future workers.
“It’s very important to the future of talent development in the Commonwealth that there is a general lift of populations who have been neglected in the past,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.