Massachusetts has taken a huge step toward providing a debt-free college education to the neediest students by significantly increasing financial aid for students attending public higher education institutions.
The move by Governor Maura Healey is a smart one. But the work is not over. If colleges and universities get more first-generation and low-income students, they will have to provide the support necessary to help students graduate.
Meanwhile, state officials should continue to keep an eye on higher education budgets and tuition rates to ensure that increasing financial aid does not lead to increased prices.
The Legislature in this year’s budget allocated $84 million for an expansion of financial aid from money raised by the new tax on income over $1 million. Healey announced Wednesday that she will use $61.7 million to expand the MASSGrant Plus program, which gives state financial aid to public college and university students.
The program will ensure that tuition and fees are fully covered for all full- and part-time students who receive federal Pell grants, which are income-based scholarships. Pell grants generally do not pay the entire tuition and require families to contribute based on their income. State aid will cover that expected family contribution. Pell-eligible students will also get a $1,200 stipend for books and expenses. That means any student whose family earns less than $73,000 a year will receive free public college education.
Full-time students whose families earn between $73,000 and $100,000 annually will have their tuition and fees reduced by up to half of their out-of-pocket expenses.
An estimated 25,000 Massachusetts students will benefit. The money will retroactively help students beginning this semester.
The policy has much to like about it. It helps both the lowest income students and those whose families earn too much to be eligible for federal aid but too little to afford college. By giving money to students rather than institutions, it lets students attend whichever public college best fits their needs. The focus on public colleges, which serve mainly Massachusetts residents who tend to stay after graduation, is an investment in the state’s future workforce. If the program is well-marketed, it could encourage more low-income students to apply to college, knowing their costs will be covered.
Paying students’ tuition and fees will help retain students through graduation, since it will lessen students’ need to work while attending school. But schools will also have to be cognizant that if more first-generation and low-income students attend, they will have to provide the wraparound services students need to graduate — whether academic advising or help finding housing. This is something the governor and Legislature are aware of, having included money in the fiscal 2024 budget for wraparound services at community colleges, student behavioral health services, and campus food resources.
State officials will also need to keep a watchful eye on higher education budgets to ensure campuses do not hike prices or cut back on their own financial aid commitments as the state increases aid. Prices are effectively set by each campus’s Board of Trustees. (The Board of Higher Education approves tuition rates for every system except the University of Massachusetts, but fees are set by each campus, and that’s where increases generally occur.) Historically, tuition and fees have been raised mostly in response to lower state budget appropriations, not fluctuations in financial aid. Spokespeople for UMass and Salem State University said their campuses have no intention of raising tuition and fees or cutting back institutional aid if more state financial aid is forthcoming. Higher education officials should ensure all campuses adhere to similar commitments.
While public colleges and universities cost less than selective private schools, they are not cheap. An in-state undergraduate at UMass Amherst will pay $17,357 in tuition and fees this year, and the total cost including housing, meals, and books is an estimated $35,765. An in-state student at Salem State University will pay just under $12,000 in tuition and fees with a total cost around $28,000.
A 2019-20 report by the Institute for College Access and Success found that while student debt tended to be lower at public colleges than private colleges, public college students still took out loans to pay for education. UMass Amherst students graduated with an average of nearly $33,000 in debt, while Salem State University students graduated with, on average, more than $26,000 in debt.
A new poll by the MassINC Polling Group found that only 26 percent of parents earning less than $50,000 a year say their child would like to start a bachelor’s degree, compared to 77 percent of respondents earning more than $100,000 annually. Across income levels, 68 percent of parents said the cost of college tuition is a major concern, and 58 percent worried about the cost of room and board. Lower income parents were more likely to also be concerned about costs of applying to college and buying books.
Getting a college degree helps students get better jobs and increase their wages later in life. The more the state can do to help low-income students achieve that goal, the better off those students, their families, and society will be.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.