Debt-Free Public Higher Education


Cost cannot be a barrier to higher education in Massachusetts, the “education state.” States like Georgia, New York, Rhode Island and Tennessee are moving towards debt-free college, but we can do even better here. We demand that Massachusetts commit itself to debt-free public higher education options for every person in the Commonwealth.

What Happened to State Schools?

Since 2001, state funding for public higher education in Massachusetts has fallen by a third when inflation and rising enrollment are taken into account. At the same time, tuition and fees have risen by $4,000 per student, on average, at community colleges, state universities and the University of Massachusetts.

Now, Massachusetts is 43rd in the nation in state spending on higher education, as a percentage of personal income.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), Massachusetts has cut higher education spending 31 percent per student since FY2001, when adjusted for inflation, and these state funding cuts “played a major role in driving tuition and fee increases across all of our campuses.” The student share of costs has risen substantially.

More students graduate with debt from public colleges than private ones, and 75 percent of public college students graduate with debt. The average student debt at a four-year public university in Massachusetts is more than $29,000.

Inequality is rising at our public colleges and universities; low-income and working people cannot always get the higher education they desperately need and deserve.

The first step to addressing this crisis is to support H.639, an Act Investing in Public Higher Education. This act would create the Finish Line Grant to provide one full year of tuition and fees to students whose families make less than $125,000. This act would also address the unfair treatment of adjunct faculty on our campuses. 

It is just a first step, but now is the time to reverse the long-term trend of state divestment from our public higher education system.

Major Concerns

Students, young people, educators, business groups, and community members are deeply concerned with the state of our public higher education system.

Many Students Are Priced Out of College. Tuition and fees have skyrocketed at community colleges and state universities in Massachusetts. These costs for full-time studentsrange from $4,700 a year at Bunker Hill Community College to $15,000 a year at UMass Amherst. 

This is unaffordable for most Bay Staters and an unacceptable broken promise. Public higher education must be affordable and accessible to all residents of the Commonwealth.

Our Workforce Needs College Graduates. Massachusetts has one of the highest proportions of jobs that need college degrees in the entire country. In 2016, more than 35 percent of jobs in Massachusetts required at least a two-year degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2025, that number is estimated to be higher than 50 percent.

Without a serious investment in public higher education, Massachusetts will face a workforce shortage that will put our economy in danger.

Massachusetts is Falling Behind. Not only are we 43rd in the nation in state higher education spending, but other states are moving ahead without us on debt-free college. 

In January 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed free tuition and fees for public higher education students in New York whose families make less than $125,000 a year. Two weeks later, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo proposed two free years of tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in Rhode Island. We must catch up, or we risk falling further behind.

Expensive College Causes Inequality. A recent study by the New York Times shows that 42 percent of UMass Amherst students come from the top 20 percent of incomes, while only 6 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent of incomes. We are creating a two-tiered system where low-income and working people cannot go to college.

A well-funded public higher education system is essential to defending our democracy in dangerous times. Massachusetts must lead the charge to reduce income and wealth inequality, fight for working families, and expand access to higher education.

Additional Resources

  • PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, is a grassroots coalition dedicated to free public higher education, full funding for our public colleges and universities, and democratic governance on our campuses. 
  • The Massachusetts Teachers Association represents many of the faculty and staff on the state’s public higher education campuses. Go here for funding information from the MTA. 
  • MassBudget provides detailed, non-partisan analysis of public higher education funding in Massachusetts.