Free college tuition program eases access for some

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 6/7/2017, 1:16 p.m.

With a pilot program announced last week, dreams of a higher education attainable by anyone with wit and a work ethic, but not necessarily wealth, seemed to come one step closer to realization. Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin Walsh launched The Boston Bridge, a new collaboration intended to expand access in Boston to public higher ed.

The program waives tuition and mandatory fees for eligible students.

Trinh Nguyen, director of the Office of Workforce Development, told the Banner that the program’s eligibility restrictions are there to target the students who can be most effectively supported toward a bachelor’s degree, although others say it is too limited to make a dent in the level of need.

“It’s not just about enrollment, but also about completion,” Nguyen said. “As of now, we want to make sure we are focused enough to be successful.”

Representatives of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) say the initiative serves too restricted a pool of students and imposes timeline requirements that may be challenging.

“[The Boston Bridge] makes for a great photo op, but does little to address the crisis of high costs and massive debts facing students and working families at all 29 public colleges and universities in Massachusetts,” states a PHENOM press release.

Education is on the radar as Democrats gear up for a 2018 challenge to incumbent Republican Governor Charlie Baker. Democratic gubernatorial challenger Setti Warren has proposed universal free public higher ed (paid for in part by tax hikes) and challenger Jay Gonzalez counts statewide access to affordable early education as his top priority. Challenger Bob Massie has said student debt is a notable problem and that public education should be expanded.

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The Boston Bridge eligibility

Zac Bears, PHENOM executive director, said that publicity around The Boston Bridge gives students the false impression that most of them will be able to get a free path to a higher degree.

“In reality, this is a very small program,” Bears said.

The Boston Bridge is available to students who live in Boston and are graduating from a Boston district, charter or parochial high school and also qualify for a Pell Grant. Households making up to $50,000 are eligible for the Pell Grant, according to Scholarships.com.

Students must then attend a two-year’s associate program (paid for under the city’s current Tuition Free Community College program), complete that degree within 2.5 years, and then transfer to a public college or university. The students then must complete a bachelor’s degree (funded by The Boston Bridge) within two years in their choice of one of the sixteen majors included under the Mass Transfer Associate-to-Bachelor’s pathway program. They must have a 2.0 high school GPA and maintain a 3.0 GPA during their higher education experience.

For their major, students currently may choose biology, chemistry, economics, history, political science, psychology, business, communication and media studies, computer science, criminal justice, early childhood education, English, liberal arts, mathematics, sociology or STEM with a focus on natural and physical sciences. There are exceptions at a few institutions. Some of the Roxbury Community College majors not included: paralegal studies, health careers and engineering. A spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Education said there are intentions to expand the majors included under Mass Transfer.