City Council backs idea of debt-free college bill

The Boston City Council in recent years has not always been known for reaching amiable agreements on high-profile policy debates. But when it comes to a nearly $800 million higher education funding proposal that Beacon Hill has been hesitant to embrace, councillors are all on the same page.

Councillors last Wednesday (Jan. 31) unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Legislature to enact a bill significantly boosting the state’s investment in colleges and universities, aiming to offer debt-free attendance for students and new resources for staff.

The bill would require students or their families to make “reasonable contributions” toward the costs of public college or university and use state funding to fill any specific gaps. It does not outline explicit income restrictions or eligibility.

Council President Ruthzee Louijeune said the bill, which supporters have long upheld as the CHERISH Act, would offer a “transformative approach” to the burden of steadily rising tuition and fees.

“In essence, the CHERISH Act is not only about funding. It’s about upholding our commitment to the future generations, ensuring they have access to affordable high-quality education,” Louijeune said during the council’s proceedings. “It’s a call to action for all of us to support the pillars of our public higher education system.”

The council’s enthusiasm extended beyond the vote: Members kicked off their hearing by adopting another resolution honoring the Higher Ed for All coalition, which has been one of the chief proponents of the legislation.

Councillors posed for a photo with Higher Ed for All advocates and turned over the microphone to Jonathan Cohn, policy director of the Progressive Massachusetts group that’s part of the coalition pushing for higher education reforms.

“The bill that we’re fighting for this session, in particular the CHERISH Act, is something that builds on that vision with debt-free higher education so that students aren’t graduating with thousands and thousands of dollars in debt that makes it hard for them when they start out and is damaging for the economy of Massachusetts as a whole,” Cohn said in the council chambers.

According to a summary produced by the coalition, the legislation would launch a program allowing students to attend public colleges and universities without incurring debt starting with debt-free community college. It would also invest more money in student support services, make adjunct faculty and part-time staff eligible for state health care and retirement benefits, boost minimum funding levels for public campuses, and explore necessary building upgrades for campuses.

A Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center analyst told state lawmakers last fall that the package would cost around $790 million, suggesting the implementation could be phased in over multiple years in the way the Legislature did with the $1.5 billion K-12 education funding reform law known as the Student Opportunity Act.

Councillor Gabriela Coletta said tuition costs are growing faster at public colleges and universities than at private campuses. “Obtaining a degree from a higher ed institution is increasingly becoming out of reach for many who do not qualify for financial aid, or there are those like me who have taken out thousands of dollars of student loans in hopes of gaining the necessary skills to become a productive member of society,” she said.

“We know that there are reverberating effects that impact the economic prosperity of these individuals, like owning a home, buying a car and family planning,” she added. “Passing the CHERISH Act means properly investing in the commonwealth’s most important engine of democracy, opportunity, and economic prosperity.”

The council’s vote effectively communicates to top House and Senate Democrats that elected officials in the state’s largest city want them to take action, though it’s not likely their call will generate a response.

One hundred and eleven lawmakers, reflecting a majority of the 200 across both chambers, have cosponsored either or both versions of the bill. However, it has failed for years to gain traction among the legislative leaders who control the purse strings. 

In the closing days of the 2019-2020 legislative session, the Higher Education Committee sent a predecessor version of the CHERISH Act to a dead-end study. Last term, the panel recommended creating a commission to explore higher education changes necessary to expand student access, but that idea died without action in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Top Democrats have instead targeted narrower changes, such as launching the MassReconnect program that covers unmet community college costs for some adults.

“The state has additional funds now via the Fair Share amendment that is already being used toward our public schools and transportation system and could also be used to assist our working-class students [to] receive needed funds to pursue their education,” Councillor Tania Fernandes Anderson said. “These funds could help our students graduate debt-free so that they don’t graduate in a five- or six-figure hole before they are even to find a job.”

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