Across the commonwealth, students, families and policymakers grapple with how to handle escalating college costs. It not only affects household budgets and bottom lines but our commonwealth’s future economic success.
Nationally, costs at both public and private colleges have grown dramatically over the last 30 years, accelerating more than twice as fast as inflation, outpacing both personal income and state tax revenues. Escalating operating costs at public colleges have made it difficult for state appropriations to keep pace.
Massachusetts compares well to other states when it comes to per-pupil state support for higher education. This year Massachusetts budgeted nearly $1.6 billion in operating and capital funds for our 29 public campuses and awarded $150 million directly to Bay State college students in financial aid and tuition waivers.
MASSGrant, the state’s largest financial aid program, provides annual grants to almost 50,000 full-time students but they average less than $600 each.
This year, the Baker-Polito administration is hoping to do more for thousands of low-income students who attend community colleges across the commonwealth.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal increases college scholarship funding by more than $7.1 million to fully cover any unmet need for the costs of tuition and fees.
If passed by the Legislature, the governor’s scholarship plan would be the largest increase to the MASSGrant financial aid program in more than two decades, and would fund need-based, last-dollar scholarships for all full- and part-time community college students who qualify for federal Pell Grants. Approximately 60 percent of the state’s community college students are enrolled part time but currently they do not qualify for MASSGrant aid.
Why are we targeting increased financial aid to community college students?
Nationally, about 45 percent of community college students are low income and almost 40 percent are the first in their family to attend college. Unfortunately, due to financial pressures, they often struggle to complete their degrees or certificates on time, if at all. Targeting community college students for more financial aid strengthens the likelihood they will earn a degree, enabling them to advance their careers or continue their education at a four-year institution.
For community college students who are able to attend school full time, these new scholarship dollars can have greater impact when combined with Commonwealth Commitment, the state’s low-cost pathway to a bachelor’s degree.
Under Commonwealth Commitment, students who complete their associate’s degree before transferring to a public four-year college can earn a bachelor’s degree for $30,000 — before financial aid. For qualifying low-income students, that already discounted price tag could now be significantly lower. The governor is requesting $250,000 to support an expansion of Commonwealth Commitment in the coming school year.
In addition, the Baker-Polito administration launched a new “early college” initiative, which will offer high schools students — especially in underserved communities — opportunities to take college courses before they graduate, enabling them to earn a full semester or more of college credits at no cost. Not only will early college reduce total tuition costs, it will also provide first-generation students with the academic skills and personal confidence they need to succeed in higher education. The governor has requested $3 million to get this high-impact program off the ground.
Massachusetts leads the nation when it comes to the percentage of our workforce with a college degree. Maintaining that leadership position is essential to our competitive advantage. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels.
Given our shifting demographics, with an aging workforce and a declining school-age population, we need to step up our game just to stay in place.
Addressing the challenges of college access, affordability and completion is not an option — it’s an imperative.
House lawmakers just completed debating next year’s budget and the Senate will take it up soon. The Baker-Polito administration hopes lawmakers will support Gov. Baker’s plan for investing in Massachusetts’ future by expanding affordable pathways to a college degree.
James Peyser is secretary of education in Massachusetts.