Is Commonwealth Commitment Going to Fulfill Its Promise?

Is Commonwealth Commitment Going to Fulfill Its Promise?
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Not too long ago I had a conversation with a mother of a high school student in Chelsea, MA. We were talking about her son and his interests and concerns about going to college.

She said, “Sometimes he tells me, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to get into debt.’ ‘Okay,' I tell him, ‘So start at a two-year college. If you see that you like it, then go on to a four-year school. But just try to do something.’”

This was before Massachusetts announced its Commonwealth Commitment Program and I hope she has heard about it.

In this new program, well-motivated Massachusetts high school students from all across the state can receive a 10% rebate off tuition and mandatory fees at the end of every successfully completed college semester. For each student this would mean an average of a $5,090 rebate, over the course of their four-year college education. That is on the condition that they start school at one of the state community colleges and transfer to one of the State Universities or UMass colleges.

It’s a pretty demanding program and by far not a “hand-out.” What is the program seeking to achieve?

If it seeks to increase low-income students’ access, it misses the mark. Currently, 81% of community college students work an average of 30 hours per week. This makes them significantly less likely to fulfill the full-time enrollment required by the program. The 10% rebate is not financially substantial enough to alleviate the need to work.

Even for those who manage to attend full-time, they have to complete their associate degree in two and half years. The sad reality is that many community college students take longer than that to earn their degree. This is especially true for low-income students who come from low-performing high schools as they often have to take several non-credit remedial courses, which lengthens their degrees.

And the requirements for the program don’t end there. Once students transfer to one of the MA state Universities or UMass colleges, they must obtain their bachelor’s degrees within 2 years, while maintaining full-time and continuous enrollment, and a cumulative GPA of 3.0. Once again, this is not an easy task for all but the most well-prepared and conscientious students. The program also promises a tuition freeze during the four year of enrollment and starting fall 2016, a new Mass Transfer initiative promises a full 100% tuition waiver for those fulfilling these requirements. But read closely, it does not seem to include fees, which can amount up to $500 per year.

Of course, any discount in college expense is welcome as it means lesser need to work or borrow money. For families who have been saving for college expenses, the extra money that they save can be used to offset the less obvious costs of books, transportation, supplies, meals, and those other costs of college that are not covered by tuition and fees. As another Chelsea High student I spoke with explained “I’ve realized that college is more expensive than I thought. Like I used to think that it was just tuition but then I found out there’s like books and fees and health stuff and all these other costs that I didn’t realize before.”

For this highly-motivated student and others like her, the Commonwealth Commitment will be helpful. For others, and unfortunately this includes many of her classmates who are less ready for college, they will not have the grades to get into the program nor will they likely complete the program unless high schools do a better job at preparing and motivating students to go to college.

I am a firm supporter of programs seeking to lower the price of higher education, but in this case, I fear that it may be less than it appears. More importantly, it does nothing to help level the playing field. There have been merit awards for strong GPA’s for some time now and few students have reached the bar. If programs like this were very successful, the private colleges, as well as the 4-year state colleges, would be squawking that the governor was dipping into their pockets and stealing students from them.

The big story here may be why so few students will be able to benefit.

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