Is Free Community College What Massachusetts Needs?

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The Massachusetts Senate president announced a plan to make tuition free at the commonwealth’s 15 community colleges.  The plan, dubbed MassEducate, would invest $75.5 million in new spending to cover tuition and fees for all residents and offer an up to $1,200 stipend for books, supplies, and other costs to students who make 125 percent or less of the state’s median income. Pell-eligible students who already qualify for a books stipend through state financial aid would also be eligible for a stipend for books, supplies, and costs of attendance for a combined amount of up to $2,400 per year.  

The Senate’s plan, included in the chamber’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget, builds on the programs created in the current budget, including $18 million in free nursing programs at community colleges and $24 million in free community college for residents over 25.  

One of the stated purposes of MassEducate is to train the workforce.  Senate President Karen Spilka stated at the announcement, “We are investing in talent that is right here at home, and opening the workforce floodgates to employers who are starved for graduates, so Massachusetts keeps the competitive edge that we pride ourselves on.”  Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues added “I’m thrilled that we have taken access to higher education to the next level, as this initiative will bolster our educated workforce and lay the foundation for generations to come … It will greatly help to keep our workforce graduates {here and} stand ready to meet the challenges of a global economy.” 

MassEducate’s goal is ambitious given the steady decline in enrollment at the state’s community colleges. In 2022, only 10.7 percent of high school graduates opted for a two-year public college. 

It is also a worthy goal but prompts several questions about how the program will achieve it.  For example, will increased access to community college workforce training programs replace or augment the sizable new investments the state has made over the past couple of years?  Massachusetts has 29 MassHire Career Centers whose primary purpose is to offer workforce training.  In addition, workforce training funds have been sprinkled among the various executive agencies through such diverse initiatives as $15.7 million for the YouthWorks program summer jobs and work-readiness training for at-risk youth and $10.4 million for training opportunities at Career Technical Institutes.  How can we ensure that there are no programmatic redundancies and that only programs with measurable job placement outcomes receive funding?

The answer to this is important. Massachusetts had an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent in April 2024.  This means there are not many people actively looking for work who cannot find a job. Where the opportunity lies is with increasing the state’s labor participation rate. This rate, which reflects the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks, is 65.1 percent. While better than the national average of 62.7 percent, it has decreased by more than 2 percent since the pre-pandemic high of 67.3 percent in July 2019.  Stated differently, over a third of the Massachusetts workforce-age population is not employed. 

People are not in the labor force for many reasons.  MassEducate holds promise for those not working due to a lack of skills for the current job openings and for whom community college is unaffordable.  For many others, language barriers, mental health and substance use disorders, lack of a high school diploma, fear of loss of public benefits or inability to find childcare or transportation impede their ability to work. MassEducate will alleviate some of these issues through the additional stipend it will provide to qualifying students. However, to make a material difference in growing the labor participation rate at the scale that is necessary to open the workforce floodgates as the MassEducate program aspires to do, will require more. To get those currently unemployed enrolled in MassEducate, have them complete the course load and obtain employment will take a lot of coordination between community colleges and providers of the wraparound services that will be necessary to ensure these students’ success.

According to the Department of Higher Education’s website, the 15 community colleges had 67,741 students enrolled in 2023; no community college has an on-time credit accumulation rate of higher than 40 percent with an average of just 33 percent of students accumulating credits on time. While MassEducate will alleviate the financial burden for many students, and this could potentially lead to improved student performance, policymakers should not leave that outcome to chance. The track record of community college students completing certificate programs in a timely fashion is not stellar.  

To successfully prepare the next generation of the Massachusetts workforce, more than just free tuition is required.  Thus, a clearer articulation of how MassEducate will be implemented and a better understanding of how it integrates with the extensive workforce infrastructure currently in place is important, as is what metrics will be used to measure success. 

Collaboration with local employers will also be vital to MassEducate’s success in strengthening the Massachusetts workforce.  Community college course offerings will have to be flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of employers as technology advances at an unprecedented rate, demographics change, and economic circumstances evolve.  How does MassEducate ensure that course offerings are responsive to these changing demands?  Could free tuition take away the incentive for community colleges to keep pace with changing workplace needs, since they would no longer need the most up-to-date course offerings to attract students?  To guard against that happening, community colleges should be required to demonstrate closer collaboration with local employers in determining curricula.  

While questioning whether community colleges will be sufficiently responsive to employers’ needs without a financial incentive to do so may seem flippant, there is legitimate cause for concern.  DHE data indicate that, on average,  only 6 percent of the degrees granted across the community colleges in 2023 were in computers and math, even amid high demand in the field and decent starting salaries.  This occurs despite community colleges indicating the prospects for each career path option along with starting salary for each course in their online course catalogs.  Incentivizing students to choose career paths that provide decent wages and a promising job outlook by working with local employers is essential.

Another stated purpose of MassEducate, according to Senator Jo Comerford, Senate chair of the Committee on Higher Education, is “to build back the power and promise of public higher education. If the notion is to enable more students to afford college by making the first two years free, enabling them to pursue a four-year degree at less expense, community colleges do not have a great track record on that measure either. Only 8,641, or less than 8 percent of students enrolled at community colleges in 2022, earned an associate’s degree. MassEducate is built on the assumption that making community college free will bolster these numbers, but sometimes making something free has the opposite effect.  If students don’t have skin in the game, even fewer may complete their studies in a timely manner.  Perhaps there should be some time limits imposed to both incentivize students and convey the urgency with which we need workers.


Eileen McAnneny, Esq. is a Senior Fellow for Economic Opportunity at Pioneer Institute