yvonne abraham

For these overachievers, tuition is their latest obstacle

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Want to feel like a massive underachiever?

Check out this year’s crop of stellar grads from the 29 state universities and community colleges.

On Friday, one graduate from each of those institutions was honored at a State House ceremony. That would be the same State House where folks still can’t get it together to adequately fund these students’ schools, but we’ll get to that.


For now, consider that, besides earning spectacular grades, many of these students took on burdens that would break the rest of us. They worked full time and went to school full time; raised children as they studied; dealt with tragic circumstances. They also found time to try to save the world, leading efforts to combat addiction, hunger, and sexual assault, helping provide health services, clean water, and education here and abroad.

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I talked to a few of these superstars ahead of Friday’s ceremony, including Matt Medina, who will get a liberal arts degree from Holyoke Community College with a GPA of 3.95. Medina, 24, was homeless for six years as a kid, and has been on his own since he was 15. He mentors boys at the Springfield residential program where he once lived. He’s also leading an effort to allow students to use their SNAP benefits to buy food on campus.

“Most low-income students struggle with affording life outside of school,” Medina said. “Poverty doesn’t end at tuition.”

C.J. Nessralla will graduate from UMass Medical School with the highest possible grades in all of his rotations. In addition to working on aid projects in Nigeria and Nicaragua, Nessralla, 30, tutors high school kids and has volunteered at Best Buddies, a charity for the developmentally disabled; his buddy is a 60-year-old named Kevin. He also got through medical school while raising two kids he met through Big Brother, back when he was a Northeastern undergrad: Alex, whom Nessralla sent to Xaverian Brothers in Westwood (paying tuition with fundraising drives) is a sophomore at Assumption College; and Paoli, who, after graduating from Lincoln-Sudbury High, will attend Merrimack College.

To round out this trio of champions, meet Jocelyn Cabral, who overcame an opiate addiction to graduate from Bridgewater State University with a social work degree and a 3.8 GPA. Cabral, 34, worked full time through college, studying year-round to make it through.


A year into her education, her brother died of an overdose. She threw herself into combating substance abuse, working with, among others, the Bridgewater police department. She also opened a recovery house. She’ll run that when she graduates, and find a way to pay off her $25,000 student loans.

If these and the others honored Friday achieved this much with their crushing schedules and financial burdens, imagine what they could have done if their schools had been better supported.

Massachusetts cut its funding for higher education so much between 2001 and 2016 -- even as enrollment climbed -- that state schools and community colleges here have had to impose some of the highest tuition increases in the nation, according to a report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Worse, state university students in Massachusetts are more likely to graduate with debt than their counterparts at private colleges, as they struggle to pay not just for tuition, but also for food, housing, and child care.

We need these state school students. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t make it easier for them to graduate.

Governor Charlie Baker has proposed a $7 million increase in funds to fully cover tuition for the poorest community college students, the largest increase in two decades. The House has signed on. The Senate should too.


That’s great, but $7 million won’t fix the massive funding gaps that afflict public higher education.

Our students are already giving Massachusetts so much. It’s time we started acting like we’re proud of them.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham