BOSTON — It’s 2015, college is expensive and costs are only rising. We all know a high school student who won’t be able to afford college, a college student hoping the next few years will be worth the financial burden or a college graduate saddled with debt.
But Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget) hopes to see that change in the Bay State.
In a report released this week, the Boston-based policy analysis group explores options that would make public higher education in Massachusetts have a much more affordable price tag: free.
The options they explore would come with a cost of between $325 million and $631 million a year for the state, with various methods of eliminating tuition and fees for in-state students at community colleges and state universities.
“Making higher education much more affordable and making it possible for kids to graduate debt-free would not only help those kids and our economy, but it’s something that could be done at a reasonable cost,” said Noah Berger, president of Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
An Idea On The Rise: Free Community College
This is certainly not the first time the idea of free community college has come up in Massachusetts.
In January, President Obama unveiled a $60 billion national plan to offer two years of free community college to students who attend at least half time, maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and make steady progress toward graduation.
“I want to spread that idea all across America,” Obama said in this year’s State of the Union speech, “so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”
Obama’s initial plan seemed to go over well with Massachusetts students, college presidents and higher education advocates.
John O’Donnell, president of Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, believes this model will eventually reach the state.
“For economic and social justice reasons, it’s absolutely necessary,” he told The Boston Globe in January.
Obama’s plan is similar to former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s aborted 2007 plan to make two years of community college free to all Massachusetts students.
Patrick’s plan drew skepticism because its initial version did not include costs or ways of meeting them. In the next year’s state budget cuts, the plan was scrapped.
Tennessee and Chicago currently have free two-year community college programs.
How Much Free College Would Cost Massachusetts
As President Obama’s plan moves slowly through Congress, MassBudget lays out details on how much it would cost if Massachusetts were to go it alone to implement a state plan that would let students graduate debt free.
Option 1: No Tuition Fees for In-State Students
One option is to let in-state students complete two years of community colleges and state universities outside the University of Massachusetts system, such as Bridgewater, Westfield or Framingham, without paying any tuition or fees. This plan, MassBudget estimates, would cost the state $325 million a year to replace payments from students, assuming that other direct sources of support for students remain in place.
From the report:
It is important to note that while eliminating tuition and fees would be a significant help for most students, these are not the only costs they face. Under this scenario, students would still have to come up with money to pay for books, housing, food, and other ongoing living expenses.
Option 2: College Grants
The report’s authors acknowledge that qualified students might stop applying to the pricier UMass colleges if the other state universities and community colleges became tuition free.
To level the playing field a bit, they offer another option: state grants that would cover community college costs or could be used to defray the costs of the more expensive state universities and UMass campuses.
At a cost of $524 million a year, the state grants would be designed to cover books and transportation as well as tuition and fees. Students could choose where to use the grants and could use them in addition to federal tax credits or work-study options.
Option 3: Free Public Higher Education At All Campuses
The final option laid out in the report is free public higher education for in-state students on all public campuses, at a state cost of $631 million a year.
That number represents the gap between the tuition and fees that resident students pay now and the existing sources of financial support that help pay for these students’ education — federal Pell Grants, state scholarships, tuition waivers and institutional financial aid.
It would offer two years of free education for Massachusetts residents at any community college, state university or UMass campus to which they are accepted.
Despite a projected $1.8 billion shortfall in state funding during the current fiscal year that the just-signed budget seeks to close, MassBudget’s Berger still says these options could be viable in Massachusetts’ future.
“There could be ways to reform our tax system that would allow us to pay for allowing kids to graduate from college debt free and make investments in other types of education so that all of our kids are ready for college,” said Berger.
As public education has grown increasingly expensive in recent years, it’s also become more difficult to find a good job without a college diploma. So more and more people are taking on large debts in order to go to school.
Take this figure, for example: According to the report, students who took loans to attend four-year public colleges in Massachusetts — meaning state universities, UMass schools or community colleges — incurred an average of $25,500 in debt for four years of college in 2010. That’s enough to start a business or put a down payment on a home.
Strikingly, it’s also more than double the average debt from a decade earlier: $10,800 per student in 2000.
The increase in debt mirrors a gradual decline of $337 million in state support of higher education between 2002 and 2013, when adjusted for inflation. At the same time, tuition and fees at public colleges roughly doubled.
“We know that the financial aspects of coming to college are one of the major impacts that we see in our student population,” said Patricia Gentile, North Shore Community College president. “The trend over the years has been to go from full time to part time.”
She’s seen students take longer than they would have otherwise, rack up loans or not finish their degree.
“One of the positives I see with a free community college is that more of our students would be able to come full time,” Gentile said. “When we look especially at middle income and lower income students that aren’t planning or can’t afford to go out of state, we’re really the opportunity for them in the public sector.”