Local Government and Politics, Opinion

Item editorial: Free tuition is worth the cost

It’s time for Massachusetts to offer free tuition to any student accepted to public higher-education institutions. 

Massachusetts is the center for higher learning in the nation, if not the world. Boston is an intellectual powerhouse where colleges are packed cheek to jowl and where the most famous academic institution in the world lies just across the river in Cambridge. 

As summer seeps into fall every year, the brightest minds from around the world converge on Boston for another year of learning. They flood classrooms in colleges, public and private, across the state. 

The students pay a steep price for tuition and room and board because they know — more likely, their parents or someone else who loves them knows — that the price tag for ignorance and lack of opportunity in life is much more expensive than even today’s prohibitively high tuition costs. 

But what about the bright students who can’t scrape together enough savings and grants and scholarships to afford public college? What about the ambitious, career-focused students of any age who can’t afford tuition at one of Massachusetts’ public higher learning institutions?

It is embarrassing; in fact, it is absurd to think that Massachusetts cannot join the ranks of New York, Oregon, Tennessee and, most recently, New Mexico, in offering free tuition to public colleges and universities. 

Massachusetts should be embarrassed to be bested by states that — with the exception of New York — are, by no one’s definition, educational meccas.

New Mexico is among the poorest states in the country. Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest, by any income measure. One is rolling out a free tuition plan. The other is perpetuating a tuition structure that makes wealth the barrier students must cross in order to better themselves, to achieve a dream, to become the best contributor to the Massachusetts economy that they can be. 

We can’t expect Massachusetts to be the best place to live and work unless we find every way to make learning affordable to everyone in a state that considers itself the oasis for learning. To be fair, programs easing tuition costs are operating or have been proposed in Massachusetts. The city of Boston has offered free community college tuition since 2016 and enrolled more than 300 students. 

State legislators in July unveiled the “Massachusetts Promise Program” offering free public tuition to students who promised to work in Massachusetts for two years after graduating. 

These are great programs and great ideas. We don’t feel they go far enough. We must make tuition free at public institutions — perhaps with an income-level threshold — and we must make the effort to find money to fund this initiative. 

Humble New Mexico plans to use revenues from oil production to underwrite its free tuition plan. No one envisions a gusher erupting in the middle of Lynn or Chicopee. But the starting point for a conversation about free tuition is with higher education administrators. 

Public education institutions are just that — public institutions. So let’s find a way for public dollars to underwrite public tuition. Free tuition is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It is not a handout. It is a long-overdue investment.

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