For a year on the campaign trail, Maura Healey pitched a plan to help adults across Massachusetts go to community college for free.
Wednesday, as part of her first budget proposal since taking over the governor’s office, she laid out the details. And while — if approved — the program could meaningfully reduce college costs for working-age adults, some experts say “free” may not be quite the right word for it.
In an event Wednesday morning at Bunker Hill Community College, Healey unveiled her $20 million MassReconnect program, which would cover “last dollar” cost to attend community college for residents 25 and older who have completed high school or some college credit.
It’s aimed, she said, at addressing skill gaps and workforce shortages in the state’s economy at a time when companies are struggling to hire even as workers are stretching to qualify for jobs in new and growing industries.
“Workforce shortages have impacted nearly all sectors of our economy, but we have an incredible opportunity before us to train the next generation of workers and increase opportunities for all,” Healey said. “More students than ever before will be able to advance or complete their educations and set themselves up for a successful career in in-demand industries like health care, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and tech.”
The $20 million plan was a highlight of a suite of budget proposals Healey put forth on Wednesday, $55.5 billion in all, which also includes new funding for environmental initiatives, child-care programs, and higher education. It’s one of several proposals that would tap money raised by the so-called millionaires tax passed by voters in November, which will generate roughly $1 billion that must be spent on transportation and education.
MassReconnect would give more than 1.8 million residents who have a high school diploma or some college — many of whom are students of color — the financial flexibility to further their education, Healey said. Recipients would have to apply for grants and other aid first, but the program would cover the remaining cost of tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Students would not be expected to take out any loans, a spokesperson for Healey said. The average cost of in-state tuition and mandatory fees for full-time students at Massachusetts community colleges is just under $7,000 a year, according to state data.
The MassReconnect program is modeled on similar efforts in Tennessee and Michigan. Michigan’s program was introduced in 2020, and as of last year, has been used by more than 100,000 students, covering an average of $800 per semester apiece.
Some analysts argue Healey should be far more ambitious, pointing to states such as New Mexico and Maine with programs that waive tuition before asking students to apply for financial aid. It’s a crucial distinction, said Chris Geary, an education and labor policy analyst at New America, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.
The “last-dollar” approach, Geary said, could leave students on the hook for loans to cover living expenses, transportation costs, and food costs, which can account for a larger proportion of a student’s budget than actual tuition. The extensive paperwork involved in applying for aid can be a barrier too.
“There’s a risk that MassReconnect could become quite convoluted where [students] don’t know their eligibility or don’t know how to navigate that process,” he said.
By comparison, New Mexico currently allows state residents of any age to attend its two- or four-year public universities or community colleges at no cost, he said, while Maine created a program allowing students to attend a two-year community college tuition-free in the wake of the pandemic.
The less-generous programs in Michigan and Tennessee were borne of political compromises in sharply-divided state legislatures, Geary said. That shouldn’t be necessary in a deep-blue state that prides itself on education.
“MassReconnect falls short of the scope of the problem facing Massachusetts residents,” he said. The commonwealth “leads the nation in almost every single educational outcome, but in developing a free-tuition plan, they’re actually quite behind.”
And indeed, Healey’s plan may face pushback from lawmakers who want more. Senate President Karen Spilka has also advocated free community college, though her plan would cover costs for all students, not just adults.
“Free community college is a top priority for me, and I’m thrilled that Governor Healey shares it. I look forward to working with her, our community college leaders, and everyone in our higher education ecosystem to ensure Massachusetts residents can afford to go to school here,” Spilka said in a statement. “We all know that this change will take time, but I believe Governor Healey’s proposal is an important step towards our shared goal of expanding access to community college.”
House Speaker Ron Mariano has said he’d need to study the costs before committing to any community college tuition plan.
Healey’s press secretary Karissa Hand said the last-dollar program is “fiscally responsible,” allowing students to take “maximum advantage of any federal financial aid available to them” before the state steps up. While enrolled in the program, students must submit a FAFSA form but will “not be expected to take out any loans, the state will fully cover all costs for tuition, fees, books, and supplies not covered by any federal financial aid,” Hand said in an e-mail. “Students will not be required to make any Expected Family contribution.”
Community college educators welcomed Healey’s proposal Wednesday.
“The MassReconnect Program will be a gamechanger for community colleges and hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.
Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, noted it could go a long way toward building a skilled workforce pipeline for industries across the state.
And Healey hailed the program as an opportunity to bring back students who have received some college credit but did not finish their degrees. As of July 2020, nearly 696,000 Massachusetts residents had some college credit but no degree — the majority of whom are over 25.
“It’s about bringing the students back in to education and programming that will help them get jobs and further opportunities for themselves in their families,” she said. ”This administration invested in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty that have held so many back for so long.”
Nicole Cain, 49, says that cycle is why it’s taken her 22 years to complete her degree.
Now a mother of five, she had her first child at 17. She finished high school and worked a string of jobs before trying to start college courses in 2001. But her coursework proved too difficult to manage as a single mom. And so she quit. Since then, she’s been chipping away at her degree at Cape Cod Community College and is now attending classes alongside her 21-year-old daughter, Zaria Cain-Williams.
Cain will complete her degree in liberal arts and communications this coming fall and says she’s thrilled that MassReconnect will provide opportunities to a generation of students who have overcome many of the same obstacles she’s encountered.
“This program is going to be so pivotal,” she said. “It would have helped me greatly. And I would not have had to probably take so long.”