Students appeal to Amherst Town Council to back free college bill

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward Town Hall.

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-24-2024 4:43 PM

AMHERST — State legislation to provide free public higher education tuition to all in-state residents is being endorsed by student activists as providing benefits to Amherst, including through stabilizing a housing market where students, families and young professionals often compete for a limited inventory.

As the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee considers bringing a resolution forward to to the Town Council to support the Cherish Act, legislation sponsored by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, that would make higher education in the state more affordable, University of Massachusetts students and representatives from the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts [PHENOM] told the councilors at Monday’s meeting they would like an endorsement for the Debt Free Future Act proposed by Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster.

“Both policies are vital to the financial capacity and welfare of students across Massachusetts, but particularly in Amherst,” said Kairo Serna, a UMass student and Clark Hill Road resident.

With half of Amherst’s population made up of college students, Serna said the state Legislature passing such legislation would alleviate the housing crisis in town, as students would be able to afford more options for where they live. Providing UMass students with free tuition would prevent them from flooding the market seeking low-cost housing options, Serna said.

At the same time, Serna suggested that permanent residents would benefit from the elimination of so-called “predatory housing practices” by landlords and UMass.

Formally titled “An Act to Guarantee Debt-Free Public Higher Education,” the Higgins bill would guarantee every Massachusetts resident has a right to a public higher education free of tuition, fees and student debt.

Liam Rue, a UMass student and Main Street resident, said the Town Council subcommittee should amend its support for the Cherish Act to also endorse making higher education more accessible and equitable through free tuition, as some European countries whose populations are similar in size to Massachusetts do.

“Tuition is exorbitantly expensive,” Rue said. “It didn’t have to become so bad, though.”

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Higgins also is sponsoring the Endowment Tax Act, which would place a 2.5% excise tax on colleges and universities in the state that possess an endowment of over $1 billion, such as Amherst College.

Henry Morgan of Northampton, executive director of PHENOM and a Hampshire College student, said the Debt Free Future Act creates a model of accessibility for everyone in Massachusetts.

For UMass student Ella Prabhakar, the bill is a transformational approach to higher education that makes strides toward economic justice and equality.

“Free tuition and more accessible public higher education is vital, not only to Amherst where many of the residents are either employed or educated by UMass, but also for the state, which desperately needs the investment into our economy,” Prabhakar said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.