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Three students walk in the tree-lined courtyard at Roxbury Community College.

Roxbury Community College is one of the Massachusetts institutions that have seen precipitous enrollment declines over the past decade.

Roxbury Community College

Massachusetts community colleges have been battered by a confluence of headwinds: a rapidly declining population of traditional college-age residents, a global pandemic, an economy replete with well-paying jobs that don’t require degrees, and rising costs of living.

These circumstances have resulted in the loss of at least a third of enrollment at each of the state’s 15 community colleges, the equivalent of tens of thousands of students, over the last decade, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Education.

While the numbers look dire, community college leaders believe their institutions are on the brink of a resurgence as state policy makers are poised to pass MassReconnect, a free college program for adult learners without degrees.

Funding for the program proposed by Governor Maura Healey is included in her draft budget, as well as budgets proposed by House and Senate lawmakers. The program will go into effect this fall if the final budget is ultimately approved, as expected.

The $20 million program would cover tuition at Massachusetts community colleges for state residents ages 25 and older who have not earned a college degree. State lawmakers estimate that at least 1.8 million Massachusetts residents would be eligible for the program. (They would be required to also apply for federal financial aid under the program rules.)

Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, described MassReconnect as “an absolute game changer.”

He noted that although the state Legislature hasn’t released a budget agreed upon by the House and Senate, the various budget proposals being considered all include the free college program, which is likely to make it into the final budget.

“We’re trying to make it clear to every adult in this state that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts believes it’s so important for you to have a college degree that they’re picking up the entire tab,” he said.

A ‘Perfect Storm’

Massachusetts community colleges weren’t always so hard-pressed for enrollments.

Mackinnon said students were coming to the state’s community colleges in such large numbers during the Great Recession 15 years ago that some campus tennis courts were turned into parking lots to accommodate the surge. Enrollment trends in the state echoed national trends for community colleges: the numbers mushroomed during the 2008 economic downturn, then fell steadily for a decade, then dropped precipitously during the pandemic. Some of the state’s community colleges, like those nationally, are now experiencing modest recoveries—but Mackinnon said Massachusetts’s downswings have been particularly extreme and exacerbated by ongoing demographic shifts in the state.

“Our population has been declining compared to the rest of the country, or at least not growing at the same rate,” he said. “We are hemorrhaging younger people. We have this sort of perfect storm of incredibly high cost of living and housing, huge demands in the labor market for anyone, especially individuals with skills for high-wage jobs, and, at the same time, unemployment being very low. And what that means is the community colleges, more so than their counterparts in the four-year institutions, really suffered from dramatic enrollment shifts over the past decade.”

MassBay Community College is one such example. It had predictable declines of roughly 5 percent year over year for several years as demographic trends started taking their toll, but COVID-19 caused enrollment to plunge there and elsewhere, said David Podell, president of MassBay. Enrollment at the college fell about 16 percent between fall 2020 and fall 2022, according to data from the state’s education department.

“The pandemic, of course, hit all the community colleges nationally really badly,” he said. “It’s never fun running a college in periods when enrollment is coming down.”

The pandemic also forced him to take cost-saving measures, including delaying some infrastructure improvements and pausing new employee hires, and simultaneously to direct more funding to online programming and mental health services. Podell said enrollment at MassBay is starting to improve this summer—it’s up 18 percent compared to this time last year—and some other campuses are starting to experience increases well.

Roxbury Community College has had the harshest decade-long decline; enrollment fell by slightly over 63 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2022. The college faced the same challenges as its counterparts across the state and also suffered a reputational hit after the former president left amid accusations of mismanagement.

Enrollment drops of that magnitude have serious ripple effects on a campus, said Jackie Jenkins-Scott, Roxbury’s interim president.

“It impacts your funding, which impacts your ability to provide services you want to provide,” she said. “It impacts your ability to be as high quality as the institution needs. Enrollment decline, it impacts morale. It impacts the environment.”

She emphasized that the numbers started improving after campus leaders introduced a slew of new initiatives to increase student scholarship funding, improve programs and revamp the college’s image. Enrollment rose about 7 percent between fall 2021 and fall 2022 and now stands at almost 1,600 students.

“We’re a small college, so every small increase really helps us,” she said. “That is helping with morale. It’s helping with the positive outlook in our college community. These small wins are really important.”

But she and many other community college leaders are expecting bigger wins if MassReconnect launches as planned.

“I’m very optimistic right now,” Jenkins-Scott said.

A Potential ‘Game Changer’

Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, said she expects to see major enrollment influxes at her college and others if MassReconnect is signed into law. The city of Boston launched its own tuition-free college program at a group of two-year colleges in the greater Boston area, and slightly over 740 students enrolled at her college through the program for this upcoming academic year. She suspects MassReconnect will have similar allure and estimates it’ll bring an additional 2,000 to 3,000 students to her campus.

Eddinger noted that the movement for free college programs, or promise programs, has rapidly spread across the United States over the last decade, often with bipartisan support. And while it’s taken some of these programs time to ramp up and get the word out to potential applicants, some have attracted students to community colleges in large numbers.

For example, Tennessee Promise, a statewide tuition benefit program launched in 2015, increased first-time, full-time undergraduate enrollment at the state’s community colleges by at least 40 percent, according to a 2020 study. Michigan Reconnect, a free college program for adult learners, received a flood of applications, more than 67,000 within months of the program’s announcement.

Eddinger said students are already trickling back to Bunker Hill more quickly and at higher rates than she predicted, particularly Black students, whose enrollments were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The confluence of municipal and state support for free college programs can only help bring students back and strengthen the future of community colleges, she said.

“It is the richest time in community college conversations that I’ve seen in the 30 years I’ve been working in this field,” Eddinger said.

Community college leaders also see MassReconnect as an example that could encourage even more ambitious programs in the future. Massachusetts Senate president Karen Spilka also announced earlier this year that she intends to push for a statewide free college program that includes traditional-age students, and community college advocates hope MassReconnect is a stepping-stone toward that bigger policy leap.

MassReconnect is “us putting our foot into the water of free community college and making sure we understand how it works, making sure it’s appropriately funded and most importantly that it’s sustainable,” said Mackinnon.

“The benefit is not just our enrollment, but to the trajectory of an individual’s life and his or her family’s and meeting workforce needs for our commonwealth,” he said.

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