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Editorial: Tuition program is flawed, but honorable start to lowering costs

  • UMass Professor David Boutt, center, works with research students documenting water samples. Contributed Photo


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Commonwealth Commitment, a year-old state tuition assistance program, makes it somewhat easier for community college students to earn a four-year degree. But that a mere 100 students took advantage of the pilot program since spring of 2016 suggests that in its current form, its reach has been limited.

We were happy to see it has been expanded this year to apply to more majors, and presumably useful to more students. But officials must work hard to bring the program's promise to a larger group of deserving students.

The “Commonwealth Commitment” is designed for students who start at a Massachusetts community college and finish a bachelor’s degree at one of the state’s public universities. Education officials have expanded the program from six majors to more than 40, hoping this will encourage more students to apply.

The program grants a 10 percent rebate on fees and tuition after each completed semester, and freezes those fees and tuition from the time that students enter the program. The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker estimates that the program could save students up to 40 percent off the “typical sticker price” of a traditional bachelor’s degree, but others have rated the savings as much less.

Great idea, but read the fine print. To be eligible, students must attend college full-time, maintain a 3.0 grade point average, begin at a state community college, complete their associate’s degree in 2½ years, transfer to a state university and finish their bachelor’s in two more years. Those are tough standards for many students to meet, especially if they're working part- or full-time to pay the bills – which may account for the low participation rate so far.

Among the majors now included are early education, computer science, business, communications, criminal justice, and architectural, industrial and graphic design, liberal arts and sciences, and six Massachusetts Maritime Academy programs.

Greenfield Community College President Bob Pura said he’s particularly pleased — given his college’s strong arts program — to see that all majors offered by the Massachusetts College of Art and Design are now eligible.

Ever the optimist who has spent his career encouraging greater access to higher education for working families, Pura greeted the news by applauding “all of the commonwealth’s efforts to increase accessibility, transferability and affordability ... Those are all barriers to our students’ success, and so the collective effort to do all that we can to help students succeed is a good effort.”

Christina Royal, Holyoke Community College’s president, also found something she liked in the expanding program: its price discount and that it encourages students to complete the degree quickly. “When it comes to finishing a degree,” she said, “Time is the enemy of completion.”

At the same time, she notes that not everyone can afford to go to school full-time as they pursue education while also dealing with jobs, families and other obstacles.

Pura said Commonwealth Commitment might be improved by extending eligibility to those who can only afford to enroll part-time.

The Department of Higher Education says it’s too early to say whether the program will ever be expanded to part-time students. But the state is going to use this year as a way to gauge students’ interest in the financial incentives now being offered. We hope the Baker administration is serious about this commitment and does seriously consider broadening the program’s benefits and eligibility so that thousands, not scores, can benefit.

So far, Commonwealth Commitment is the sober, parsimonious approach of a Republican administration and not the free college education-for-all approach of progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders. But it is a start. We hope that in a time of burdensome student debt, we can find more ways to expand the accessibility to all forms of post secondary education. Such opportunities have become increasingly important for the long-term security of the working class families of Franklin County and for the overall health of the state economy.