Delay in Setting State Budget Imperils Proposed Launch of Free Community College This Fall

Northern Essex Community College’s Dr. Ibrahim El-Hefni Allied Health & Technology Center in Lawrence. (Courtesy photograph.)

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With a new academic year nearing, community colleges are tentatively moving forward with plans to help students 25 and older attend for free even though the program has not yet been approved within this year’s budget that’s stalled in negotiations on Beacon Hill.

Community college leaders say the delay in striking a budget deal, which was due by July 1, means they have less time to implement Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed “MassReconnect,” launch marketing campaigns and recruit potential students, including re-enrolling people who previously dropped out. Back in March, Northern Essex Community College President Lane A. Glenn welcomed Healey’s plan.

“The MassReconnect program is just what hundreds of thousands of adults in Massachusetts who started college and have not yet been able to complete their degrees need to help them cross that finish line, and it’s just what the state’s employers need to help them fill in-demand jobs in our workforce. NECC is already creating a new Center for Adult Academic Pathways and we look forward to welcoming these students back to campus,” Glenn told WHAV.

Healey has said MassReconnect could reach 1.8 million Bay Staters who are eligible to receive state aid as they earn a college degree or certificate. But the budget impasse could imperil Healey’s plan to offer the program in the approaching fall semester.

“Since Gov. Healey put forward this proposal over the winter, the Department of Higher Education has been working closely with the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges and all 15 community colleges to coordinate the successful rollout and implementation of MassReconnect,” Commissioner of Higher Education Noe Ortega said in a statement Tuesday.

Healey, asked whether she’s concerned about students not being able to attend community college for free due to the stalemate over the larger $56 billion annual spending plan, said she hopes to receive a budget from House and Senate Democrats “as soon as possible.”

The House and Senate matched Healey’s proposal to allocate $20 million for MassReconnect in their budgets. Community college leaders told State House News Service that represents a promising sign that MassReconnect will come to fruition once the final budget is approved on Beacon Hill.

Unlike the House, the Senate also wants to invest $20 million in a free community college pilot program for nursing students this fall and $15 million for start-up costs to gauge enrollment demand and strategies for launching a universal free community college system.

Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges,said there’s been no outreach yet on the free nursing proposal this fall due to a lack of agreement on the measure between the House and Senate. The focus, he said, has been on reaching roughly 719,000 students who fit the MassReconnect target audience, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, who have taken some college classes but don’t yet have a degree and are no longer enrolled.

Should Beacon Hill not approve a final annual budget by the start of the fall semester, the Department of Higher Education and community colleges could retroactively credit eligible students once MassReconnect takes effect through a later budget agreement.

State House News Service contributed to this report.

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