Free tuition: New state program is helping adults attend community college
|Published: 11-13-2023 8:50 PM
HOLYOKE — On the Leslie Phillips Theater stage at Holyoke Community College, Matthew Haughton plays a man attempting to outrun his past — a theme familiar for the 32-year-old Springfield native, who returned to college this fall more than 10 years after making the difficult decision to halt his education and work full time.
Haughton was able to rejoin the theater — and the classroom — thanks to funding from MassReconnect, a $20 million financial aid program established in the Massachusetts fiscal 2024 budget that eliminates tuition and fees at community colleges for residents over the age of 25 who have not already earned a degree or certificate.
“It felt like a welcome back,” said Haughton, who is more determined than ever to earn his associate degree and work toward obtaining his bachelor’s. “I definitely know that this is something that I want to do, and I’m gonna keep continuing to do it as much as I can, no matter what comes my way.”
Haughton is one of more than 320 HCC students currently enrolled in MassReconnect, according to Mark Hudgik, the college’s interim dean of strategic recruitment initiatives, admissions and financial aid. Qualifying students no longer have to pay for tuition, fees, books and supplies because of this “last-dollar” program, which requires participants to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and covers the remaining cost of school after factoring in federal aid.
“There’s a lot of folks who could benefit,” said Hudgik, who noted that many people assume they are ineligible because the program seems “too good to be true.”
More than 1.8 million Massachusetts residents meet the program’s age requirement and have received a high school diploma, or GED, but no higher education credential, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance reported.
Haughton heard about MassReconnect through his theater professor Tim Cochran, who directed productions he was part of during his first semesters at HCC, and is the director for “A Bright New Boise,” the show Haughton stars in now. He plays Will, a father attempting to reconnect with his son in the wake of a traumatic experience at his church.
“He’s stuck in the past, but he’s trying, he’s crawling his way to try to make a future,” Haughton said. “What I take from this is some of that past coming to haunt you sometimes and holding you back from your future.”
Haughton’s time at HCC began in 2009, when he enrolled in four to five classes per semester and participated in the school’s theater department, on top of working 30 hours per week to afford school.
“I started off pretty good with academics and things. I got into theater. That helped me out a lot, but then eventually my grades started dwindling,” he said. “It was just overwhelming, taking too many classes, as well as doing theater, and not knowing that you could overdo it.”
Haughton fell under academic suspension in 2012 and remembered thinking to himself, “Oh, no, I can’t do this.” He left school and worked full time for the next 10 years, frying food at the Friendly’s restaurant in Springfield before joining his mother as a caretaker for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at group homes. He found the work fulfilling but wanted to pursue a career beyond what he considered to be entry-level jobs.
During the pandemic, Haughton enrolled in an accelerated, virtual class that reignited his interest in finishing his education.
“After doing that, I was like, ‘Oh, snap, I actually enjoyed learning again,’” he recalled. He never “would have even thought about coming back” if not for MassReconnect, which served as the “welcome back” he needed to consider returning to school full time.
Some 6,500 to 8,000 students are estimated to take advantage of the program this academic year, Gov. Maura Healey’s office estimated, boosting enrollment at the state’s 15 community colleges after years of fewer students signing up for classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healey celebrated the new program’s impact at the beginning of the year.
“It will bolster the role of community colleges as economic drivers in our state and help us better meet the needs of businesses to find qualified, well-trained workers,” Healey said in a statement.
Haughton is now completing his degree in communication, media and theater arts at HCC, while also making his return to the stage in “A Bright New Boise.” He debuts as Will this Thursday, a role he said has been a natural fit for him.
“It didn’t feel like I was forcing it or trying to act or trying to be anything,” he said. “It just felt like I was reading this and I was becoming whoever was on the script.”
Once the curtain closes, he will study for final exams, and then Haughton plans to spend only one more semester at HCC before he obtains his associate degree and can transfer to a four-year college he is interested in, such as Westfield State University or the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
He will no longer qualify for MassReconnect, and while programs such as MassTransfer offer savings to students who meet certain particular GPA requirements, Haughton will no longer be able to count on his tuition being free.
“I want to be able to progress myself in life,” he said. “It’s just something I’ll have to pay.”
The son of two Jamaican immigrants who never understood the American school system, Haughton spent years navigating his education on his own. Completing his degree is his life’s goal, he said, and MassReconnect helped him reach that milestone without feeling the pressure to make ends by himself.
“It got me through the door,” he said. “Without that, it’s just come if you want to. It’s all on you.”