Columnists Max Page and Zac Bears: Must commit to debt-free public college

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus COURTESY UMASS

Published: 9/11/2017 8:14:24 PM

It’s time to get real about college affordability in Massachusetts. As the rest of the country moves toward programs that provide debt-free public higher education, Massachusetts languishes with some of the highest tuition rates in the nation, weak financial aid programs, and hardly any leadership in pushing for true affordability.

Case in point: the Commonwealth Commitment, Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature effort to increase college completion and affordability. If grades for a program were given for how well a program helped the governor in his upcoming re-election campaign, the Commonwealth Commitment gets an A. As a program to help a larger number of our young people to get through college with less debt, it gets an F.

Rolled out to great fanfare, the Commonwealth Commitment was advertised as a visionary answer to the crisis of skyrocketing student debt. Like motherhood and apple pie, who could be against it?

But move beyond the staged rollout, and you’ll see a different picture. First, the “commitment” adds up to a $5,000 benefit at most, as compared to those not participating in the program. That’s not nothing, but it only takes the edge off of the $30,000 total cost. While New York is moving toward four years of free tuition for all working- and middle-class students, and Rhode Island is offering free community college to all the state’s residents, our governor is throwing a couple thousand dollars in for a tiny fraction of students.

With all of the hoops and small-print conditions, most students aren’t eligible for the program in the first place. You have to start at and attend a community college full-time. (The majority of our community college students, because of work and family commitments, cannot attend full-time). You have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average. You have to complete your associate’s degree within 2½ years, then immediately transfer to a four-year school and complete your degree two years later. You have to pick from a limited set of majors. And the financial “commitment”? It only comes as a rebate after the successful completion of each semester.

The total financial value and the rules have led to this stunning statistic: by the Department of Higher Education’s own admission, the total number of students who are participating in this program, advertised as national model, is 100. One hundred students out the nearly 200,000 at our public colleges and universities. Maybe the new expansion of possible majors will double the number of participants to 200. If they’re lucky, it will increase the number 10-fold, to 1,000 — about one-half of 1 percent of all public college and university students in the commonwealth.

There is, fortunately, some good news lurking beyond the confines of the snake oil that is being sold by the administration.

First, legislation is waiting on Beacon Hill to implement true college affordability, such as the Finish Line Grant, which would modestly offer a free year of tuition and fees at any public college or university in the commonwealth for all students from families with incomes under $130,000 a year, covering 80 percent of all public college students in the state. That would be a first step on the way to making public college a right, and a public investment — just like K-12 education.

Many western Massachusetts legislators sit on the committee that will pass judgment on the bill — John Scibak (chairman) of South Hadley, Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst, Aaron Vega of Holyoke, Eric Lesser of Longmeadow and Adam Hinds of Pittsfield. And let’s not forget the “senator from UMass,” our own Stanley Rosenberg, who has a big say in making this happen. But so far, he has been silent on the issue of debt-free public higher education. We need his leadership now.

Second, community groups are already taking over leadership on the issue, wresting college affordability out of the executive and legislative quagmire. The Fair Share Amendment, the progressive tax constitutional amendment that will go before the voters in November 2018, specifically includes college affordability as a purpose to which the nearly $2 billion in expected revenues must be spent. No more hiding behind the argument that there is no money. And no more shunting money to everywhere but financial aid for our students.

The time for true college affordability — debt-free public college — is long past. It’s time to reject the empty glitz of a made-for-campaign program, and instead make a real commitment to educating our young people without burdening them with lifelong debt.

Max Page, of Amherst, is a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Zac Bears, of Medford, a 2015 graduate of UMass Amherst, is executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.

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