Massachusetts considering universal, free community college

A plan to create tuition-free, universal community college for all Massachusetts residents was up for discussion Tuesday as the state Senate launched debate on its proposed $57.9 billion budget for the new fiscal year.

Supporters, including Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka, say the plan dubbed MassEducate is aimed at increasing the state’s workforce while expanding opportunities for students across the state.

The proposal would set aside $75.5 million in new spending to cover tuition and fees, and offer a stipend of up to $1,200 for books, supplies, and other costs to students who make 125% or less of the median income in the state.

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The Senate plan included in its Fiscal Year 2025 budget would continue to invest in programs created in the current-year budget, including $18 million in free nursing programs at community colleges and $24 million in free community college for residents over 25.

“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 in,” Spilka said in statement when she unveiled the plan earlier this month.

Students would be eligible for the free tuition and fees and the stipend this coming fall semester if the proposal is included in the state’s final budget plan.

That’s far from certain.

The Massachusetts House, which has already approved its version of the state budget, did not include the proposal. Senate leaders will have to negotiate with the Democrat-led House to try to get the plan in the final version of the spending plan they ultimately send to Democratic Gov. Maura Healey.

The 15 community colleges in Massachusetts serve more than 90,000 students, about 70% of of whom attend school part-time, juggling work and family commitments.

Nearly half receive federal Pell grants. Those students, already eligible for a book stipend through state financial aid, would also be eligible for a stipend for books, supplies, and costs of attendance under the Senate plan for a combined $2,400 stipend per year.

Critics warn that the cost of the Senate’s community college plan could be hard to sustain.

“There is nothing as expensive as making something free. The cost will inevitably balloon and the taxpayers will forever be obligated to pay for this irresponsible decision,” said Paul Diego Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.

The Senate budget debate comes as state officials said the voter-approved “millionaire’s tax” – which imposes a 4% surtax on the portion of an individual’s annual income that exceeds $1 million — has already generated more than $1.8 billion in revenue for the current fiscal year with three months left to go, more than estimates.

The money is intended for transportation and education initiatives.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page and Vice President Deb McCarthy said in a written statement that the additional tax revenues is a vindication for the coalition of groups, including the MTA, that pushed for the measure.

“These funds are vitally needed so school districts can hire and retain the necessary staff to meet the needs of students and provide public educators, in pre-K through higher ed, with fair wages and modern working conditions, including access to paid family leave,” they said in a statement.

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