My Turn: The cost of higher education is more than financial

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Published: 5/22/2022 6:47:06 PM
Modified: 5/22/2022 6:46:47 PM

Over the past seven years I have taught literature for the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program that provides free accredited college-level instruction for adults facing economic hardship and adverse circumstances.

The goal of the course is to “empower students to further their education and careers, become effective advocates for themselves and their families, and engage actively in the cultural and political lives of their communities.”

President Joe Biden recently ended his bid for free community college, but the movement for tuition-free education continues at municipal and state levels. However, tuition is one of many cost-burdens associated with college and because of my experience with Clemente, I know it is critical to student success that tuition-free college programs also reduce the secondary financial burden of higher education.

Students enrolled in the Clemente Course range in age from 17 to 72 and have a variety of experiences with higher education. While some students take community college courses in tandem with Clemente, others are working toward their GED, and for some, Clemente is their first time in a classroom in many years, if ever. Regardless of academic background, students overcome a variety of challenges to complete their work and attend class.

While expenses like credits and textbooks are obvious expenses for students, there are less obvious secondary costs. Child care, for example, can be prohibitively expensive for working parents, making class attendance difficult and homework impossible.

Unreliable access to transportation can also discourage would-be students. Students without a vehicle depend on costly transportation services that might not serve their area or be convenient to their class schedule.

Undependable access to technology such as lack of a personal computer or home internet connection situates even the brightest student at a disadvantage. The Clemente Course, by design, eliminates these predictable, but indirect costs, easing the financial burden of college and emboldening students to explore their intellectual capacities.

In the Clemente Literature classroom, student-led discussions integrate community history and personal experience with textual analysis, producing an array of interpretations for texts that span from Ancient Greece to today. These dialogues sharpen students’ critical thinking and communication skills as they support their interpretations with textual evidence.

I will never forget a class discussion of Hamlet and the “to be or not to be” soliloquy when a quieter student spoke at length about the correlations between the social pressures that Hamlet faces and the ones he navigates in his own life. The student stopped himself mid-sentence declaring, “Wow, I can’t believe I just said all that…” In this moment that student saw that he could engage with Shakespeare and that the Renaissance playwright was relevant to his own lived experience.

This kind of discussion and realization in the classroom is made possible by eliminating the difficulties that many students face outside of the classroom so that they may be successful inside of the classroom.

Although the national bill for free community college is suspended, states and municipalities throughout the United States continue to forge ahead with individual bills and laws that support tuition-free college programs. New Mexico, for example, recently emerged as a trailblazer, approving a new law that allocates $75 million of its annual budget toward a tuition-free program for which all state residents qualify, regardless of family income. Most striking about New Mexico’s law is that it covers tuition and fees before other scholarships and sources of financial aid are applied, a tactic that allows students to use those other funds for expenses such as lodging, food, or child care.

Despite Massachusetts’ reputation as a leader in higher education, its three tuition-free programs are unambitious because they fail to consider the secondary financial burden of college on students. The Commonwealth Commitment Program lowers tuition, providing no assistance with associated expenses. More ambitious in scope, the city of Boston’s Tuition-Free Community College Plan covers remaining tuition and fees after the Pell Grant has been applied and grants $250 per semester for college-related expenses, such as books or transportation, but is limited to city residents. The Boston Bridge Program helps students from TFCC transition from community colleges to four-year colleges with similar supports in place, but requires participants to be enrolled full-time, an impossibility for adult-learners with jobs and families.

These programs, while a good start, are not enough. Would-be students in Massachusetts deserve more. With sites in Brockton, Dorchester, Holyoke, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester, the Clemente Course, funded by Mass Humanities and non-profit community partners, is essentially fulfilling the state’s demand for tuition-free access to college courses, but more robust opportunities are necessary. Tuition-free college may sound too good to be true and for many, it will be, unless lawmakers offset the indirect costs associated with college to create an equitable tuition-free program at the state and national levels.

Liz Fox, Ph.D., is the arts and academic programs coordinator for the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies and managing editor of the English Literary Renaissance University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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