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Pending legislation would make state institutions free for students

Updated: Jan 26

Emily Rosenberg / THE GATEPOST

By Emily Rosenberg


As a first-generation student, Evelyn Campbell works three jobs to help afford her college tuition bills every semester. This is along with being the Student Government Association president and spending hours completing weekly academic responsibilities.

During the school week, she works at the Center for Academic Success and Achievement as an ASPT Tutor. During the nights and weekends, she heads to a bridal store for shifts as a sales consultant. And she also manages the social media of the store she works for.

As the daughter of a single mother, a public university was the only option she considered.

Campbell is only one of thousands of students at FSU who work to pay for their education and of hundreds of thousands in Massachusetts who spend the majority of their hours outside of the classroom working to pay their tuition and fees.

A bill in the legislature, H.1265/S.823 - an act relative to debt-free public higher education, would essentially end this phenomenon for students who declare themselves as dependents and also free all students of the debt most acquire from borrowing.

The bill proposes students across the state system have their tuition and fees paid for by tax dollars, not including room and board. It would also provide grant money for low-income or Pell-eligible students to pay for residence housing and meal plans.

The bill, non-formally called “The Debt Free Future Act,” was first filed in 2019 and was refiled in 2023 by Representative Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster), and Senator Jamie Eldrige (D-Marlborough).

The Joint Committee on Higher Education heard testimony from Higgins, Eldrige, and Representative Carmine Gentile (D-Sudbury) and the advocacy group Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts on Sept. 18.

The bill is estimated to cost around $1.8 billion, according to Higgins, and would likely be rolled out over multiple years. It does not provide specific language for how it would be funded, but it is assumed much of the funding would come from the Fair Share Amendment.

Passed in 2021, the Fair Share Amendment imposes an extra 4% income tax on residents who earn over $1 million. In FY 24, the funding was equally allocated to transportation and education, and it allowed the legislature to make historic investments in financial aid through the MASSGrant Plus Expansion.

The legislature also launched Mass Reconnect, which provides free tuition to community college students across the state for people 25 and over and plans for free tuition to all community college students in 2024.

Higgins also said another way to fund the bill would be to tax university endowments over $1 billion, another bill she sponsors.

H.2824 would impose a 2.5% tax on private college and university endowments in Massachusetts. According to Higgins, these endowments total $95 billion combined and if taxed, they could generate over $2 billion in tax revenue toward public higher education funding.

“Not everyone has a chance to attend Harvard University or MIT, but their endowments could make sure every single Massachusetts resident can go to college for free,” she said, adding Harvard University made a 25% return on their investment last year. “We’re just asking for a little bit of that profit.”

Higgins said the issue of affordable education is personal to her as a first-generation college student. She said her father did not have the opportunity to finish high school, so for her brother and herself to be able to access public higher education was “incredible.”

She added, “at the same time, over my lifetime, over the past 35 years, it has gotten increasingly unaffordable for the folks that [public higher education] was designed for. So we're really challenging the state and our legislative colleagues and the governor's administration to imagine investing in public higher education so that it is the equalizer that it was a generation ago.”

To put that into context, the annual estimated cost of tuition and fees at Framingham State University in 1990 was $3,156.

In 2023, the semesterly cost is more than double what it cost in 1990, with the fees for one course rounding out to $1,746. A full-time in-state undergraduate student pays $6,984 in fees and $648 in tuition.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, 1,547 full-time undergraduate Framingham State students received some need-based aid in 2022-23. Need-based aid is defined as a “college-funded or college-administered award from institutional, state, federal, or other sources for which a student must have financial need to qualify.”

In 2022-23, the number of full-time undergraduate students who were awarded any financial aid was 1,732, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Higgins said that in gateway cities, less than 25% percent of young adults obtain a bachelor’s degree, compared to the 50% of residents across the state - what Massachusetts prides itself on.

“If we’re really serious about being the education state, we need to invest in free public higher education." - Senator Jamie Eldrige (D-Marlborough)

Gateway city is a legal term to describe 26 urban regional areas in Massachusetts that face social and economic challenges. Framingham State is closest geographically to the gateway cities of Attleboro, Brockton, Springfield, and Worcester.

She said there is data showing that teenagers in gateway cities contribute 25% of their household incomes while they are in high school.

“Guess what? They have to continue that work when they shift into college. And that prevents them from being able to be enrolled full time because they are just trying to help their families make ends meet.”

Higgins said Massachusetts historically is a leader in education, so she would like to see that same investment extended to public higher education. She added she believes this will help the enrollment at state universities, eliminating the factor of cost in most students’ decisions to apply. “There will no longer be folks on the sidelines thinking, ‘i just don’t know if I can afford that.’”

She added one of the biggest issues the legislature is taking on is workforce shortages - not having the right workers for the right jobs.

“The solution is public higher education funding. Let’s make sure folks can get those degrees, get those skills as quickly as possible.

Senator Eldrige echoed Higgins’ sentiment. He said in a state that prides itself greatly on an educated workforce, it is logical to provide free access to public higher education because the system now “sadly has a very negative impact on working-class and low-income families.”

“If we’re really serious about being the education state, we need to invest in free public higher education,” he said.

Eldrige added it is important to acknowledge the dramatic increase in access to job opportunities receiving a bachelor’s degree gives to students. “I think it would have a great impact on a lot of wealth inequality that exists in the state right now.”

He emphasized that the passage of Mass Reconnect in FY 24 shows free public higher education across the entire state system is also possible.

Eldrige said he sponsored the bill because in the district he represents, he talks to a lot of constituents who upon graduating, have challenges budgeting for the next steps of their future such as having families because of “fairly significant debt.”

The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) is an advocacy organization that unites students, faculty, alumni, staff, and community members across the state to advocate for debt-free college.

PHENOM focuses on advocating for the Debt-Free Future Act as well as the CHERISH Act. The CHERISH Act shares a similar mission: it invests in higher education by providing for a program that would allow students to graduate debt-free, but also includes several initiatives that would make working for higher education more equitable.

Communications Chair of PHENOM Liam Rue said the organization is focused on enshrining the message that higher education is a right, not a privilege, and how the bill will be funded is secondary. He added the organization pushes for both CHERISH and the debt-free future act, but more heavily for the debt-free future act because it is more student-oriented.

He said as Massachusetts is one of the richest states in the country, the bill challenges the legislature to reallocate and reorganize tax revenues toward funding free college, especially now with the additional revenue from the Fair Share Amendment.

He added the organization strongly supports H.2824 to tax private university endowments and recently sponsored a rally on the UMass Boston campus to lobby support for it on Nov. 17.

Rue said students should get involved with PHENOM because it is central to almost every college student attending a public institution in Massachusetts.

“We're seeing the student debt crisis get worse and worse. People will have to delay milestones like having families, for example, and even buying a home,” he said, emphasizing that data shows college-educated Massachusetts residents are waiting at least 20 years out of college to reach these life accomplishments.

Rue himself is an out-of-state student at UMass Amherst, so if the bill were to pass, it would not concern him, but he said he plans to pursue a graduate degree, so the idea of incurring even more debt is overwhelming and he realizes he will “have to struggle.

“​​When college has become so expensive, where so many people have to take out excessive student loans to continue going to college, it really prevents people from thinking boldly about the type of future they want.”

Rue added he thinks there is a social concept that if college is expensive, then people are working harder for their degrees, and “think more about their degree. “I just think that’s ridiculous because life is expensive enough without even having to think about college,” he said.

Izabel Depina, the organizing director of PHENOM, said the organization’s goal is to get all 29 state campuses involved in advocating for the bill with faculty, students, and staff. She said the organization tables and helps set up PHENOM chapters across the state institutions.

She said one of the organization’s talking points is that paying for college is rooted in structural racism. Depina wrote a master’s thesis on how the Debt-Free-Future Act pertains to the UMass Boston campus, focusing on the intersectionality power of canceling student debt.

Depina said there is systemically a lack of education and health care so providing affordable public higher education would significantly open opportunities for people of color.

Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said if a debt-free initiative were to pass in the legislature, how the University would budget its operations is “to be determined.

“In terms of what could occur on the institutional side, the fact that there's more financial aid doesn't necessarily mean there's funding for operations. So how do you meet both the institutional needs and the student needs to try to reduce the cost as much to students,” he said.

He added this is likely why the bill has not been adopted in previous sessions, but he believes students will probably continue to see expanded financial aid programs such as MassGrant Plus.

Hamel said a concern is if a bill such as this were to be funded, “How do you ensure tuition and fees don’t get out of control?”

Iris Godes, Dean of Strategic Enrollment Management said hypothetically, if the bill were to pass, she would like to think it would increase enrollment at FSU.

“And, if funding is available to assist with housing on campus, we would see our percentage of resident students increase as well.”

She said as the Mass Reconnect program available at community colleges had a positive impact on enrollment this year at those institutions, she imagines a bill that would provide debt-free college to students across all state institutions would have a positive impact on enrollment if it were to pass.

“Any opportunity to reduce the cost of higher education will have a lifelong impact on future students who may not be accessing higher education now because they cannot afford the cost,” Godes added.

In terms of long-term enrollment planning, she said “The primary marketing strategy would still be similar to what we do anyway. However, we certainly would heavily promote the opportunities for additional state support and make sure that anyone who strives to earn a college degree knows that there are resources available to make that possible.”

She also emphasized the recent MassGrant Plus expansion that will provide additional financial aid to low- and middle-income students and in some cases, cover the entire cost of their bills.

SGA President Campbell said she encourages students to get involved with PHENOM and is interested in using SGA as a platform for advocacy.

She said affordable public higher education is definitely important because the price of attending college is becoming increasingly expensive, all while degrees are more needed than ever for most jobs.

Campbell added although Framingham State is a much more affordable option compared to the private schools her friends are attending, most FSU students will still be graduating with a lot of debt.

She specifically emphasized Framingham State’s population of first-generation students - 54%. She said many of those students may not know the difference between a subsidized and unsubsidized loan.

She said, “Even before we get to college, we are already saddled with this huge financial burden, so when we graduate, then we have to deal with it, which is unfair.”

Campbell added another benefit of debt-free college is students who work will be able to focus more on academics and co-curriculars.

“If college were free, I wouldn’t have to balance three jobs and it would take the stress off of the financial situation,” she said. “if we were able to only focus on our education, we would actually value our education a little bit more,” she said.

“I think a lot more students would be focused and willing to be active participants in our community overall,” if they were not financially burdened by tuition and fees.

Kate Caffrey, MSCA Faculty Union president, is also concerned about the cost of public higher education. The union collaborates with the Higher Education for All Coalition, which also advocates for the Debt-Free Future Act and the CHERISH Act.

She said the MSCA and the Massachusetts Teachers Association “worked tirelessly” to get the Fair Share Amendment passed, so now their mission is to ensure there is a portion of those funds geared specifically toward higher education.

She said public universities have been underfunded by the state for decades, which leads to state institutions needing to raise tuition and fees to fund operations.

“So more and more of our students have a larger amount of debt, and some of them are under a tremendous amount of stress to pay these loans back,” she said.

Caffrey added, “If our students had the support that they needed, I actually think more people might think about going to college if they weren't looking at this huge amount of debt - especially our population that is socio-economically challenged.”

“If our students had the support that they needed, I actually think more people might think about going to college if they weren't looking at this huge amount of debt - especially our population that is socio-economically challenged.” - Kate Caffrey, Faculty Union President

She added that the value of education has changed because of the cost of tuition and fees, leading to students and their families not being able to afford college without working almost full time while also being a full-time student.

She said most of the learning happened outside of the classroom when she went to college as professors assigned hours of readings along with research assignments and projects. “We can no longer ask that of our students.”

Caffrey said she used to be “very offended” when students fell asleep in her class, but has come to realize that a lot of students work late and then are managing assignments and other responsibilities.

“What happens is your education becomes more watered down and you’re not getting, to be honest, what you used to get for your money,” she said.

Referring to the Mass Reconnect Program, she said the sentiment behind initiative is positive, but students should not have to wait until they are 25 years old to start college.

John Holiver, a graduate student whose parents paid his way through his undergraduate degree at Framingham, said he believes there are other ways to reach affordable education that do not include passing legislation - for example, lowering interest rates on student loans.

He added he is concerned the quality of education will be diluted if students no longer have to pay.

“I'm also thinking - what do we do with the graduate students or the people who have already graduated who are paying off their loans - do they get those forgiven?”

Richard Stamos, a senior, also questioned how the quality of education would be affected if students no longer had to pay. “The students who come here - some of them are relatively high caliber, and others just want to party for four years. If you make it free, you will see a lot more students coming just to party for four years,” Stamos said.

He said the bill should also be retroactive to allow students who obtained their degrees before it goes into effect to receive debt relief, because otherwise, it is as if they are being “punished.”

Stamos added another idea other than to make tuition and fees free would be to subsidize or lower the cost of room and board because it “doubles the cost of college” for a lot of students.

Isabelle Berube, a freshman, said she is an out-of-state student, so the first idea that came to mind when she heard about the bill was that it will not affect her.

She said as an out-of-state student, her decision to go to Framingham would not necessarily be affected if she knew all of her peers were receiving free tuition and fees because she already deals with a steep difference in cost. “I would love if my peers could benefit from something like this act.”

Berube said she chose Framingham State even though it cost significantly more as an out-of-state student because of the accredited nutrition program.

“I think it's important for people who love learning, like me, to go to college and get that higher degree. I don't think it's for everybody. But for people who enjoy education, I think everyone should have that opportunity.”

“I think it's important for people who love learning, like me, to go to college and get that higher degree. I don't think it's for everybody. But for people who enjoy education, I think everyone should have that opportunity.” - Isabelle Berube, Freshman

Belle Zagame, a junior, is pre-med and she said she believes the Debt-Free Future Act would especially encourage students to seek advanced medical degrees because it would take the burden of paying for a bachelor’s degree off before going into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for medical school.

Hayley Sashjin, a senior, noted the number of hours she works both as a security desk attendant for residence life and off campus at another job. She said if the state were to provide for tuition, it would allow her to better focus on her future and “the actual path I want to go down rather than just having to pay it off.”

She acknowledged that Framingham State is itself one of the most affordable options in the state, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to afford as is true of all colleges.

Paige Grainville, a freshman, also acknowledged the affordability of Framingham State and emphasized how generous financial aid can be.

However, she said making college debt-free would “affect everyone” because although state institutions as cheaper than private institutions, people are still paying off their loans well into their 40s.

“A few of my cousins went here. They were commuters. They had children in high school. So they came to FSU because of their daycare and child programs, and they still are paying off their debt.

“Tuition [and fees] is one of the hardest struggles for people who attend college,” she said.



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