A program to cover community college certificates and degrees for residents over 25 with state dollars was one of Gov. Maura Healey’s early promises, but lawmakers on Monday questioned whether the $20 million allocated in her budget proposal is enough to fulfill her commitment.
Healey introduced MassReconnect, a program that will “offer students last-dollar financial support to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies as well as provide funding for career and wraparound support services to encourage retention and degree-completion” on the campaign trail as a way to boost opportunities for individuals while addressing the state’s labor shortage. She allocated $20 million for it in her fiscal year 2024 budget.
In promoting the program, her administration said there were nearly 696,000 state residents with some community college but no degree as of July 2020.
“There are 700,000 residents who have earned some college credit, but haven’t gotten to completion. $20 million divided by those 700,000 people, that’s $28 bucks a person, I don’t think that that’s the intention of this program,” said Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster at a hearing on education spending in Healey’s proposed budget.
If all 1.8 million Massachusetts residents who have a high school diploma or equivalency — who Healey’s team say would be eligible to have the last-dollar costs of attending community college covered by the state via MassReconnects — opted into the program, it would leave about $11.11 for each of them.
“That’s going to be the question that we want to make sure that we begin, or the piece of the puzzle that we begin, to fill in as we move forward in these conversations,” Higher Education Commissioner Noe Ortega said in response to Higgins.
Higgins asked for an estimate of what the unmet financial need is for those 25 and older students who the program is intended to help. Ortega said he did not have the estimate available, but that he would get it and “share that with everyone.”
“I don’t want for the premise of past precedents for college going rates to be the driver for how we think and envision new programs,” Ortega said. “We have to expect that when we go out there and make a claim like MassReconnect, or when we get closer to saying — when we make an announcement that college will become more affordable for all, we have to stand behind the ‘all’ part of this formula.”
Ortega said he hopes that everyone eligible takes advantage of it, and the program can make a dent in the affordability of community college for those who do.
Since MassReconnect is a “last-dollar” program, he said part of the puzzle is considering other resources to help cover the cost of higher ed.
“Last-dollar means that you tap into all the other available resources that are already available to our students,” Ortega said. “And when you think about some of our students who have the most need, you’ve got federal resources coming in there, other state programs get tagged on, right? And in the end, you’d come in with sort of this MassReconnect, I hate to say cherry on top, but it’s essentially what it looks like, the end of the packaging that gets us closer to addressing all direct costs.”
Healey is proposing $152 million in new investments for financial aid in her budget, including a $93 million increase to the MASSGrant Plus scholarship program. Her office estimates this financial aid investment will provide at least 33,000 students with assistance for tuition, fees, books and supplies.
Rep. Lipper-Garabedian of Melrose asked Ortega if the nearly 700,000 residents who had been to college but not yet earned a degree may be eligible for some sort of debt relief through the MassReconnects funds.
“I can just imagine a hypothetical of two otherwise similarly situated 26-year-olds, one who tried it out before and now is carrying some amount of debt, that they are concerned about going back because they have to hold down a job to pay it off, and someone who didn’t take that chance earlier and then, you know, has a bit more of an advantage at this moment in time,” Lipper-Garabedian said.
Ortega said the way that MassReconnects has been developed so far, it does not cover debt relief costs.
About $2 million of newly available surtax dollars will go toward redesigning financial aid in Massachusetts, partially to help solve problems like the one Lipper-Garabedian brought up, Ortega said.
“This is a big topic of conversation happening nationally, when individuals who want to reconnect have these extra barriers that they have to navigate,” he said. “I think we’ve got to grow increasingly sophisticated about addressing some of those.”
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