LOWELL — In an initiative billed as the most far-reaching of its kind, higher education leaders Thursday unveiled plans to sharply reduce college costs for community college students who go on to attend a state university.
The effort, dubbed “Commonwealth Commitment,” takes aim at two stubborn, intertwined issues: rising college costs and low graduation rates, particularly at community colleges. It provides financial incentives for students to continue their education, awarding rebates at the end of each completed semester and freezing tuition when they enter the program.
Education officials estimated the program, which requires students to earn their bachelor’s degree within 4½ years, would save students an average of more than $5,000 by graduation.
“This is a tremendous opportunity,” Governor Charlie Baker said at a news conference at Middlesex Community College in Lowell to announce the program.
University of Massachusetts president Marty Meehan said he hopes the program will help more students have the financial flexibility to earn bachelor’s degrees in a timely fashion.
Meehan said that students often enroll in a community college “but because of the challenges of funding their education, because of the challenges of work, because of the personal challenges in people’s lives, they don’t graduate in four years.”
The program provides 10 percent rebates on tuition and fees at the end of each semester to full-time community college students who maintain a cumulative 3.0 grade point average. The students must earn their associate’s degree in no more than 2½ years.
When students transfer to a state university, they receive a 10 percent discount on fees at the end of each semester. Tuition, which in Massachusetts constitutes a relatively small part of overall college costs, is waived for the next two years. Students would still be responsibile for room and board. The program is reserved for in-state students.
“You could be talking about a situation where for many kids before grants, before scholarships the total cost of a college education could be somewhere between [$24,000] and $26,000,” Baker said.
While other states have adopted elements of the Massachusetts initiative, none go as far in making college more affordable and giving students incentive to earn a four-year degree, higher education specialists said.
“You are guaranteeing sort of a fixed cost up front and you’re helping them pay it,” said George Pernsteiner, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers in Boulder, Colo. “That’s a powerful motivation, I think, for students and families.”
Another higher education group, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, said the Massachusetts program is the most comprehensive of its kind in the country.
The program begins this fall. Students entering community colleges and students who have earned no more than 15 credits are eligible to apply.
The initiative encompasses the five University of Massachusetts campuses, nine state universities, and 15 community colleges.
It will begin by offering degrees in 14 majors, including biology, chemistry, economics, psychology, and history. Education officials plan to add 10 more programs in the fall of 2017 in early childhood education, computer science, criminal justice, and other fields.
Officials did not speculate on the cost of the program, which will depend on enrollment. Meehan estimated 100 students will initially transfer to UMass campuses, costing about $200,000.
The schools will pay for the program with financial aid funds, said Carlos E. Santiago, the commissioner of higher education.
“The campuses are in some respects taking it out of their hide,” he said. “They have agreed to do this.”
Meehan said he hopes to pay for the rebates with additional fund-raising.
“We’re going to raise money and provide more need-based scholarships to these students who are successful,” he said.
Natalie Higgins, who directs the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, an advocacy group that lobbies for lower college costs, applauded the program but said the state must also increase funding for public colleges and universities.
Earlier this week, Higgins said House lawmakers unveiled a budget plan for next year that provides level-funding for the state’s colleges and universities.
“We can do better,” she said. “We’re a leader in education. That should extend to public higher education.”
At Middlesex Community College, some students said the plan would make it easier to pay for their education.
Daniel German, 19, a mechanical engineering student from Lawrence, said he works at Save-A-Lot in Methuen and receives financial aid and a student loan to pay for school.
“It’s pretty complicated,” he said. “Not everybody can actually pay for this.”
Casiana Dicent, 19, a senior at Lawrence High School, said she wished she had learned about the program sooner. Dicent, who was among a group of students invited to the announcement, said she plans to attend Emmanuel College in the fall.
She said she is seeking scholarships and planning to work as much as possible to pay for school.
“It’s very difficult,” Dicent said. “None of us want to be in debt.”