A free community college program in Massachusetts for students aged 25 and older has led to a surge in enrollment at the state’s two-year institutions but has also put a significant strain on the system, particularly on the workload of financial aid and student support services staff.
The MassReconnect program led to a student roll increase of about 5,000 learners, or 8 percent, in fall 2023, the first semester after it was introduced, according to a report from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Although the spring enrollment numbers are not yet finalized, system officials say applications were 30 percent higher than the same time period in 2023.
And as the number of students grows, so does the workload, and many of the system’s 15 community colleges are struggling to hire enough workers to keep pace with the expanding enrollment.
“We are now dealing with what I would describe as an awesome problem,” said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. “I describe this as a natural challenge that would occur with large, sudden increases anywhere.”
It’s not entirely unlike a problem the Massachusetts system and many other community colleges across the country faced before.
During the Great Recession of 2008, when millions of underemployed Americans returned to college to get additional education and learn new skills, many colleges, including some in the Massachusetts system, saw enrollments that exceeded their capacity.
“When the Great Recession really took hold, we were all of a sudden parking students in tennis courts because we ran out of parking spots,” Mackinnon said. “With that comes a requirement to grow our staff and support services for students to ensure that we can continue to focus on quality.”
The difference this time around is a tight labor market, stagnant wages and increasing costs of living in the state, which are all making it harder to fill the new positions. Despite administrators’ willingness to restore positions that were eliminated as a result of pandemic-related budget cuts, it has been difficult to find candidates to fill the vacancies.
The staff shortages also raise questions about the feasibility of universal free community college programs with no age limits, an idea that a handful of state higher education officials and lawmakers across the country have been considering. As they watch smaller free college programs boost enrollment, increase the number of degree holders in their states and address workforce development goals, these officials are asking if the programs could have the same effect on a larger scale.
Hoping for ‘A Little Break’
Financial aid officers and student success coaches at Massachusetts community colleges had to hustle to put together financial aid packages for the new students and make sure they have the supportive services they need to pass their classes and stay enrolled.
Jillian Glaze, president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said that although she is “super excited about the tremendous opportunities” ahead, there is “definitely a need for more hands.”
Glaze, who is also senior director of financial services at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, felt lucky to have a “highly committed” staff, but she said last semester took a toll on her small staff of four financial aid counselors and one associate director.
“They did a lot of extra work to try and make sure that there weren’t any visible gaps,” she said. “Of their own choice, they worked extra hours on weekends to make sure that we were getting out aid packages as quickly as humanly possible.”
The program’s initial implementation was “successful” but not “ideal” for her staff, Glaze said. “I’m hoping that we’ll be able to get them a little break soon.”
Although there is sufficient funding and administrative support to hire additional employees, Glaze said finding people with the skills to fill the roles has been challenging.
“To be a qualified financial aid administrator takes a depth of regulatory knowledge that takes time and a lot of training to develop,” she said.
And the challenges extend beyond financial aid. Community college presidents and other higher education officials across the state are anecdotally reporting shortages in adjunct instructors, registrar officers and student success staff.
Different States, Different Challenges
Free college or promise programs have been popping up across the country over the past several years and have commonly contributed to relative spikes in enrollment, however, the surges range in velocity, as do the challenges.
Michigan introduced its free college program, Michigan Reconnect, in early 2021, but it did not experience nearly as large of a boom in enrollment as Massachusetts. Michigan’s community college enrollment rose by nearly 13,000 students, or about 5 percent, between 2020–21 and 2021–22, according to the state’s education database.
Even after another 3 percent boost in enrollment in 2022–23, and a current total of about 280,500 students, the system still falls almost 70,000 students short of the approximately 350,000 who were enrolled in 2017–18.
Erica Orians, vice president of the Michigan Community College Association, believes the shortfall is largely due to timing. When Michigan Reconnect launched, the state was “still really in the depths of the pandemic,” she said. And as a result, “I think that we saw less of a spike right away.” Although the community college system has not struggled to ensure staff counts kept pace with student roll numbers like Massachusetts, it has had high employee turnover and other challenges that have still made staffing a struggle.
“There’s a lot of new issues that colleges are facing that go beyond that academic counseling office,” Orians said. “You can’t ignore students’ mental health needs, because if those go unaddressed, those students are unlikely to continue to enroll.”
In Maine, where enrollment numbers soared after state lawmakers approved a free college program for recent high school graduates in 2022, the system struggled to hire new staff quickly enough to meet the demands of an increased population of students.
David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, said after the Free College Scholarship program was adopted, he tried to “get the oars in the water before students showed up.” He anticipated a tidal wave of new students and allocated $1 million for additional staffing for the system’s seven colleges. But by the time students arrived on campus in the fall, most of the system’s colleges still lacked the staff needed to keep pace with enrollment, he explained.
“I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everybody was hunky-dory—everyone’s a little bit stressed,” he said. “But there was the ability to anticipate, prepare and sort of cushion the blow.”
Is Expansion Feasible?
Despite the increased workloads and staffing problems that come with free college programs, some education officials and lawmakers in Michigan and Massachusetts are considering removing the age limits and making community college free for all.
Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill, said the challenges her campus and others in the system have experienced are “typical growing pains” necessary to achieve something that’s been “a dream for so long.”
“I think the colleges have lived in a state of precarity for so long that when something like this comes, it’s almost a second reaction to say, ‘Oh, and now we need to expand capacity,’” Eddinger said.
She is confident the system is prepared to become universally free, noting that if the concept were to pass in the current state legislative session and be implemented in the fall, college leaders will have had a full year to measure MassReconnect’s outcomes and make adjustments.
“We’re ready,” she said. “We need to think about this as not just Massachusetts’s own bubble. This has happened in more than 30 states across the country … so it is not like we’re doing this on a blank canvas.”
But Mackinnon of MACC says that there is a long way to go before the system is ready.
“It’s clear there’s a desire to get to a point where community college is free for everyone in Massachusetts, and we are excited to embrace that,” he said. “However, that will also need to include an investment in our faculty and staff compensation, as well as addressing critical infrastructure concerns.”
The state Legislature has distributed $1.5 million across the 15 colleges so far to assist in increasing capacity. But a recent report by the community college association suggests that it will take a lot more state dollars to ensure the system is ready for a universally free college program.
“At a time when inflation is what it is, and people can get pretty good money doing a lot of different things, a starting faculty salary of around $55,000 in a place like Massachusetts—it’s just not sustainable,” Mackinnon said.
The report estimates the system would need an additional $90 million in annual state funding to cover compensation. Other costs, including building maintenance and other “critical infrastructure concerns,” could raise the total to $170 million annually, the report said.
“Our colleges have a significant backlog of deferred maintenance,” Mackinnon said. “We want to be sure that we are ready to welcome all students who want to attend community college with the high-quality, first-class facilities that they expect and deserve.”