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Tuition-free college still has its caveats, report says

Programs that cover the cost of college tuition for low-income families provide students with a leg-up on a better future, but more needs to be done to make them more accessible, according to a new report.

Minority, adult, and immigrant students could end up being excluded, the report by Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center says.

For example, Boston’s Tuition-Free Community College Plan requires students to start college within twelve months of obtaining their high school completion credentials. But students from low-income families, the report says, may have had a harder time affording and starting college right out of high school.


Many undocumented immigrants are not eligible at all.

“Massachusetts rewards education more than almost any other state. If we know that, then the question is, who gets access?” asked Jeremy Thompson, a senior policy analyst at MassBudget and the researcher on the report . “Our report pushes on that and says, ‘Well, what about students of color, what about less wealthy students, what about immigrant students?’ ”

There are only a handful of so-called “Promise” programs across Massachusetts, according to Thompson. However, lawmakers are considering bills proposing tuition reduction or debt-free college guarantees.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh launched Boston’s program in 2016. It covers tuition and mandatory fees for eligible students at Bunker Hill Community College, MassBay Community College, Roxbury Community College, and, the most recent addition and only private institution of the choices, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

The report from the left-leaning policy center calls the city’s plan a “middle-dollar” funding guarantee, which requires students to first use federal Pell grant and other grant aid to pay tuition and fees. If grant aid meets all of a student’s tuition and fee costs, they are guaranteed some other minimal funding.

Even with their tuition covered, however, many low-income students carry a heavy financial burden. In community colleges, tuition and fees only make up 27 percent of the full cost. Living expenses make up 66 percent, and books and supplies make up 7.5 percent, according to the report.


In the city’s plan, if a student’s tuition and fees costs are fully covered by the grants, they receive $1,000 distributed across three semesters for college-related expenses such as books or transportation.

“For someone living off campus, most of their costs are living expenses that don’t disappear because you are in college,” Thompson said.

In addition, to be eligible for Boston’s program, students must come from a household with low or moderate income, but the report suggests net worth should be more significant than income. Solely focusing on the latter can result in racially inequitable outcomes, the report says.

In 2016, the typical middle-income white family had a net worth 3.4 times the typical middle-income Hispanic family, and four times the typical middle-income black or African-American family. This means that, of ineligible students, those who are white will be far more likely to access their family’s wealth to pay for school.

Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at ysabelle.kempe@globe.com.