Thomas Kendall’s plans for college and a career in health care were derailed in 2019 when he crashed his car into a tree while driving under the influence. The incident was a “devastating” setback that prompted Kendall, now 26, to take retail and restaurant jobs to cover his living expenses and bills for several years, through the COVID-19 pandemic.
His goal of furthering his education and pursuing a career in health care remained, but he worried about taking on the added expense of college.
Recently, Kendall who is from Harwich and graduated from Cape Cod Technical High School, received news that brought him hope about his future for the first time in years — he is eligible for a new state program that will cover the cost of tuition, fees, and books for a degree in health care from Cape Cod Community College.
“There’s just a massive weight lifted off of me and I just feel so special,” Kendall said. “I really honestly feel like this is just a complete restart and rejuvenation of my life.”
The new program, MassReconnect, became reality earlier this month when Governor Maura Healey signed into law the state’s fiscal 2024 budget, which earmarked $20 million to cover community college costs for residents over 25 who have not previously earned a degree or certificate. The budget includes an additional $18 million for students pursuing nursing degrees at community colleges.
Healey said in an interview that she believes MassReconnect will help address “severe workforce shortages” across Massachusetts’ largest industries and provide affordable opportunities for students to land livable wages. She added that the program is the first step her administration is taking to make higher education more affordable for residents.
“I’m really excited about the potential for this program,” said Healey, who shared details about the program with students and community college presidents at a press event Thursday. “We can open more doors for older students to restart their education, to come back and finish a degree.”
About 2.5 million Massachusetts residents, most of whom are over 25, have a high school diploma, or GED, but no college degree, according to state officials.
Free community college programs have been growing across the country in recent years. Healey modeled the MassReconnect program after a Michigan Reconnect program, which state officials there said last summer has helped more than 100,000 Michigan residents pursue tuition-free degree or certificates since it launched in early 2021.
Massachusetts community college presidents said that they are hopeful the new program will help boost enrollment, which declined dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interested students are asked to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form after signing up for classes at a local community college, and then eligible students are automatically registered for MassReconnect, which covers remaining costs after other financial aid programs such as Pell Grants are applied.
“We’re hoping that [the program will] really eliminate a lot of the barriers of students coming back,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College. “Everybody realizes that public higher education has been so neglected for so long. This is the right time.”
Jordan Gordon recently learned that he is eligible for MassReconnect, which will cover the expenses for his final semester of a business administration program at MassBay Community College in Wellesley. The program will save him about $1,700 in tuition for the semester, plus expenses for supplies and books, which will be a big help for Gordon, who works two jobs in addition to school.
“It takes a little burden off [as] I’m trying to save money,” Gordon, 30, said. “I just hope that I can move forward and grow my career, and continue to educate myself.”
The average cost of tuition and fees for full-time students at Massachusetts community colleges is just under $7,000 a year, according to the state’s Department of Higher Education.
Brockton resident Kevin Brito, 27, has been working in the security field for several years but has been yearning for a career that he feels more passionately about. He learned about an electric utility program at Bunker Hill Community College, which includes a 12-week paid internship with Eversource. He wanted to work outdoors and he knew that the program could lead to a job “where I know I’m not going to struggle to make end’s meet,” he said.
Brito logged onto his computer recently and was thrilled to see that the MassReconnect program had covered his tuition costs for the program.
“I am so grateful,” Brito said. “This is going to take off a bunch of stress I was having about how to pay loans later on. ... This helps me feel more confident in my future.”
The state’s 15 community colleges are working together to spread the word about the new program, Eddinger said. Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, said that the colleges are already seeing an increase in applications for the upcoming fall semester compared to last year. Community colleges have open enrollment policies, which allow students to sign up for classes at any time.
“MassReconnect is an absolute game-changer for the state, our workforce, and the adult students 25 and older who can now go to college without worrying about how they will pay for it,” Mackinnon said.
A spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Education said that the state expects 6,500 to 8,000 community college students pursuing degrees or certificates will be covered by MassReconnect in the first year. They expect participation to grow to 10,000 students in year two.
Healey said that “bolstering the role of community colleges as economic drivers in our state” will help meet business and industry needs for skilled talent.
“It’s also going to help us lift people up and break cycles of intergenerational poverty,” Healey said. The program “provides a ticket of economic mobility for residents around the state and I’m really excited about that.”