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Massachusetts’ free tuition proposal has its drawbacks


Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to make the state’s community colleges tuition free for high school graduates is unlikely to alleviate the financial burdens of many low-income students who must hold down full-time jobs and support a family while they go to school, educators say.

“It’s not a cure-all, and I don’t think it’s going to benefit who they think it’s going to benefit,” said Susan Sullivan, director of financial aid at Bunker Hill Community College. “It will help kids who go to school while they live with mom and dad. But it isn’t going to help with the problems our students have, because they can’t just give up their jobs.”

Tuition is just one cost of college. It also includes housing, health and child care, books and other classroom materials, and transportation.

It is estimated that Bunker Hill’s full-time students spend an average of $10,800 a year for overall living expenses, but only $2,554 is for tuition and fees.

Iris Godes, dean of enrollment management at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, said Patrick’s plan would make a “significant dent” for students living with their parents, but she thought self-supporting students would still find it tough.

“Looking at independent students with a family, there’s still a big gap there, especially if they want to go to school full time,” Godes said.

Patrick’s proposal, part of a wide ranging education reform plan announced last month, is aimed at strengthening the state’s work force. The Board of Higher Education estimates it would cost as much as $175 million a year for 200,000 students who attend the state’s 15 community colleges.

The proposal requires legislative approval.

A commission studying the issue is expected to announce details in March.

Some details to be worked out are who exactly would be eligible.

The Board of Higher Education, which supports the proposal, recommends restricting eligibility to full-time students who completed four years of English and math in high school and enroll directly after high school.

No income requirement has been proposed, but if the program is too expensive, low-income students should be the first to benefit, said some administrators.

“We should start with the poorest,” said Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College.

Kimberly Drinkwater, a 27-year-old mother of two, receives financial aid to cover the cost of her part-time nursing classes at Bunker Hill, and her mother watches her children when she is at school because she cannot afford day care. But even working 25 hours a week she is barely getting by.

“Tuition only begins to cover the actual cost,” she said. “I’m falling behind every term I’m here, so I’m trying to finish as fast as I can.”

The proposal will still help many students, said Dana Mohler-Faria, Patrick’s top education adviser.

“We understand that attending college is more than tuition and fees,” he said. “This won’t resolve all our issues, but it will make a major difference.”

Information from: The Boston Globe,

–Associated Press

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