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    THE ARGUMENT

    Should Massachusetts drop tuition and fees for in-state students at its public colleges and universities?

    YES

    Kimberley Connors

    Concord resident, member of Progressive Massachusetts

    Kimberley Connors

    Education is essential and goes to the heart of what we think of ourselves as a people and a Commonwealth. Massachusetts was the first state to offer free public schools. Now, it needs to help lead the way in another important step to make education accessible and affordable for all: providing free tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.

    We need a 21st century workforce. Our elected officials work diligently to attract employers, but without highly skilled workers prepared to fill those jobs, this is but an exercise in futility. Making college free would go a long way towards changing that.

    Thousands of students are unable to afford college and most who graduate are saddled with very high debt. Since fiscal 2001, cuts to public higher education in our state have led to massive growth in average debt for graduates, according to the nonprofit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s report released earlier this year.

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    That debt increased by 77 percent from 2004 to 2016, a rate of growth that was higher than in every state but Delaware. This gives Massachusetts the dubious distinction of having gone from the second-lowest amount of average loan debt in 2004 to having the 10th-highest in 2016. In fact, the average debt among public university graduates almost equals that of private colleges and university graduates in Massachusetts. The truth is Massachusetts has fallen to 45th in what we spend on higher education as a share of our economy.

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    At the 15 Massachusetts community colleges, tuition and mandatory fees averaged $6,034 per year in fiscal 2018. In today’s tight economy, where many families live paycheck to paycheck, that is unaffordable. That same pressure has led a growing number of states to offer free tuition programs at community colleges — and in at least one case, New York, state universities.

    As we near the end of the legislative session, a resolve “to establish a special commission on tuition and fee-free and debt-free public higher education” sits in committee. Lawmakers should adopt that resolution as a first step to making free tuition and fees a reality.

    NO

    Patricia Saint Aubin

    Norfolk resident, Republican State Committee member, 2014 Republican nominee for state auditor

    Patricia Saint Aubin

    A free college education at state schools, you say? How will the current batch of college hopefuls feel after they receive their “free” education, then once in the working world, continue to pay taxes for 40-plus years so all those behind them get that free education too?

    If we were to eliminate all the tuition and fee revenue that is generated annually from the state’s colleges and universities, it would create a significant hole in the state budget that would have to be filled by either higher taxes or cuts to programs, including potentially to higher education.

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    Given that demand for free services is unlimited, what admission criteria will the state’s colleges and universities employ to select students in a world of limited class and dorm space, never mind teacher time? My guess is that academic criteria will rise as capable students prefer a free public college over a private college charging a boodle by comparison. Looks a lot like welfare for the middle and upper classes to me.

    Meanwhile, the marginal applicant who has the aptitude and inclination but perhaps not had the opportunity yet to prove himself or herself would get crowded out.

    Hold on a minute. Is the free college the perfect environment for every student? Currently, the state’s public universities on average graduate just 55 percent of their students. What will the number become when students choose the free school when it is not the right fit for them?

    Some argue we need free tuition because of “crippling student debt.” Then why isn’t someone addressing the real cause of that? If we want to ease the student debt crisis, we need to enlist the help of financial service professionals to steer students away from loans that they will later become an undue burden on them.

    Lastly, there is the practical issue. The United States has a shortage of skilled workers. How many plumbers or electricians are in the pipeline? There is an argument to be made for encouraging young people not academically inclined to attend vocational or trade schools rather than encouraging them to choose a “free” education, which we all know can never truly be free.

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    (This is an informal poll, not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.)

    As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.