Massachusetts Senate leaders say they will seek $55 million to begin covering tuition costs for a wide swath of community college students, including thousands enrolled in nursing programs, in what they framed as an initial step toward their goal of making community college free for all in-state residents as early as next year.
The community college plan — part of a wider state budget proposal the Senate is set to release Tuesday — would go beyond those proposed by Governor Maura Healey or the Massachusetts House, both of which embraced spending $20 million to cover tuition costs for many residents 25 and older at the state’s 15 community colleges.
The Senate plan includes that earlier Healey- and House-backed proposal, all but ensuring it will become law. But the chamber also would dedicate an additional $20 million to cover costs for those attending community college nursing programs, targeting a crucial training ground for an industry that was starving for staff even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Another $15 million from the Senate plan would then cover so-called ramp-up costs for realizing Senate President Karen E. Spilka’s call to make free community college for all state residents.
All three proposals, totaling $55 million, would be covered with revenue generated by the state’s new surtax on annual income over $1 million, Senate leaders said. The Senate’s budget proposal also calls for an additional $15 million for community colleges, most of which would go toward so-called wraparound student support services, such as mentoring, workshops, or academic advisers.
But Senate leaders admitted they do not yet have an estimated cost for the more ambitious effort to make community college free for all, or how much that effort could boost enrollment beyond the roughly 92,000 students enrolled in community college credit programs last fiscal year.
“Our goal is to provide the foundation so that free community college starts in the fall of 2024,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat and the chamber’s budget chief. “We’ve seen enrollment drop in our community colleges for a lot of reasons. And we certainly know that every employer is screaming for a better-educated, better-trained workforce.”
The Senate’s community college proposals begin to give shape to a wider spending plan still shrouded in uncertainty. The questions hanging over the budget debate include what tax relief measures the Senate intends to pursue after state tax revenues cratered in April.
Before passing its own budget plan last month, the House approved a tax relief bill that could cost the state $1.1 billion a year and mirrors many aspects of Healey’s plan. Spilka, who has long supported overhauling the state tax code, said the Senate would not release a tax plan until “after the budget,” leaving unclear when exactly one could surface.
“I said last spring, I said again in the summer, I said again in the fall, and in January that we should have permanent, progressive tax relief that is smart and sustainable,” she told reporters Monday. “We’ll see when we are ready.”
The Senate does appear to largely align with the House and Senate in pumping new funding into early education, another major focus for leaders on Beacon Hill, according to details shared with the Globe.
The Senate’s budget proposal, for example, would invest heavily in so-called C3 grants, dedicating $475 million to a program that was originally funded by Federal American Rescue Act money to stabilize the child care sector during the pandemic. The money has been used for everything from teacher salaries to classroom supplies to day-to-day operational costs like rent and electricity.
The chamber also is proposing $45 million to up the reimbursement rate for child care providers who accept poor children, an investment advocates say is desperately needed to help boost salaries and allow providers to keep serving needy families navigating some of the most expensive child care in the country.
The Senate also wants to increase funding for a program that helps preschool teachers and other staff pay for their own child care, and includes a policy change that would allow early education and care programs that accept state subsidies to provide child care discounts to their own staff members.
It’s in funding for community colleges, though, where Senate leaders are pitching a far wider vision than their counterparts in the House and the governor’s office, starting with the nursing programs in every community college.
Last fall, roughly 2,900 students were enrolled in such programs, where, officials say, they must shoulder additional costs on top of the nearly $7,000 in tuition and fees the average full-time community college student pays each year.
At MassBay Community College, for example, the roughly 90 nursing students enrolled this year must pay an extra $1,000 per semester to participate in their associate degree or certificate programs, said David Podell, MassBay Community College’s president.
They’re preparing to enter a field in crisis. Vacancy rates for registered nurses in Massachusetts hospitals doubled to 13.6 percent between 2019 and 2022, according to a Health Policy Commission report. And nearly a fifth of nurses polled in a March survey conducted by the Massachusetts Nurses Association said they planned to leave the field in two years or less.
The Senate’s $20 million pilot plan would function similarly to Healey’s proposed MassReconnect program, which aims to help residents 25 and older who have completed high school or some college credit attend community college. Both are intended to cover “last-dollar” costs, or those remaining after a student receives other grants or aid.
The Senate’s community college proposal “won’t overnight increase the number of nurses,” said Podell, who also chairs the state’s community college Council of Presidents. “There are many obstacles we have to address to help solve that problem. But it will take the debt burden off students that go into nursing.”
Spilka has previously committed to pursuing ways of making community college free for all residents, though she previously hadn’t provided a public timeline. “It’s beyond time,” she said in January. “Let’s make it free.”
Senate officials said the $15 million allocation for startup costs would go toward that goal, helping the state and community colleges pay for new staff, administrative costs, and other efforts in preparation for the fall of 2024, when the Senate would seek to cover costs for students throughout the system. The plan would dedicate $1 million directly to the community colleges to begin planning, which could, for example, involve starting to analyze what enrollment could look like.
Other states have already pursued making college free. New Mexico passed a law allowing state residents of any age to attend its two- or four-year public universities or community colleges at no cost. Maine launched a temporary program allowing students to attend a two-year community college tuition-free.
Healey’s proposed MassReconnect program is modeled on similar efforts in Tennessee and Michigan.
Should Massachusetts make all residents eligible to attend community college for free, gauging how much enrollment could surge is “one of the hardest things to predict,” said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges.
“We need the runway to be able to look at that,” he said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. But first we need to figure out what those other wheels look like and where they are applicable to us.”