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Free community college programs increase enrollment — and strain staff

Carrie Jung Apr 24, 2024
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Fernando Garcia-Rodriguez, assistant director of Mount Wachusett Community College Educational Opportunity Center, and Cassie Peltola, a community outreach counselor, look at a FAFSA online application form. Robin Lubbock/WBUR

Free community college programs increase enrollment — and strain staff

Carrie Jung Apr 24, 2024
Heard on:
Fernando Garcia-Rodriguez, assistant director of Mount Wachusett Community College Educational Opportunity Center, and Cassie Peltola, a community outreach counselor, look at a FAFSA online application form. Robin Lubbock/WBUR
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Friday afternoons at the Mount Wachusett Community College in north-central Massachusetts are known affectionately as FAFSA Friday. This weekly drop-in event is a time when prospective students can get help applying for federal financial aid.

In years past, these sessions were relatively quiet, but ever since the state’s new free community college initiative launched last fall, there’s been a steady stream of traffic. The program, known as MassReconnect, requires students to apply for federal financial aid first.

“Things have been getting busier and busier as the semester goes on,” said Cassie Peltola, a community outreach counselor at Mount Wachusett Community College.

MassReconnect covers community college tuition for residents 25 and older who don’t already have a degree. 27-year-old Ryan Soulliere says the tuition help has been huge.

“It just allowed me to switch to part time at my job and that helps me be able to get my homework done more reasonably,” he said. “It’s less stressful.”

This program has been incredibly popular. Enrollment at Mount Wachusett last semester was up by about 12% from 2022. Statewide, it’s up 8%, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher education. But the influx of students has been a double-edged sword. For students it can be life changing, but the faculty and staff at several of the state’s community colleges are feeling strained with so many new financial aid and enrollment applications to process.

“I want to be 100% clear, this is a wonderful program,” said Jason Marsala, dean of enrollment services at North Shore Community College. “But if you’re the person who has to make all the adjustments and fixing all the accounts and following all the money, it’s made your life super difficult right now.”

It doesn’t help that many community colleges have been slowly losing staff for a few years. Many left higher education after the pandemic. And while it might seem like more students would translate to more money for the school to afford better pay and hire more staff, it doesn’t often work that way. Like most other states, Massachusetts community colleges get less state funding per student than four-year public universities.

Up the road in Maine, community colleges are also experiencing an enrollment surge.

David Daigler, the president of the Maine Community College System, says the state budgeted for 8,000 new students when the free community college program launched in 2022. But enrollment numbers have far exceeded that estimate. As of February, about 12,600 people had signed up for the program, according to Daigler.

“It’s been a fascinating ride. I’m excited by it,” he said. “And I’m a little scared by it.”

Daigler adds that community colleges in Maine are also feeling strained by the rapid increase in enrollment.

“Staffing across the board is a major concern,” said Daigler. “We can’t underestimate the pressure that the faculty find themselves in. They now have full classrooms.” 

The surge has also surpassed some schools’ ability to provide affordable housing for students who want to stay on or near campus. Central Maine Community College, for example, recently expanded its contract with a local hotel to help students on a wait-list for the college’s on-campus housing find a place to live.

It’s common to see an enrollment bump when a state or city offers free community college. John Fink, a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, explains that the increases in Maine and Massachusetts feel dramatic right now because community college enrollment is recovering from historic lows seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s encouraging, but to some extent not surprising, that there’s a lot of folks out there in communities that, with the offer of free tuition, they’re going to come back to the community colleges,” said Fink.

Fink hopes that states extend their investments beyond tuition, so colleges can hire adequate faculty and staff who can support students. 

“To make sure that students aren’t just getting in, but getting through,” he said. 

In Massachusetts, state leaders say they hear that message loud and clear.

“This is a year of learnings,” said Noe Ortega the state commissioner of higher education.

“What we need to pay close attention to is what kind of capacity are we going to need to build out.”

Because, he says, Massachusetts wants to keep offering free tuition.

There’s about 20% more funding for MassReconnect in next year’s budget proposal, which includes money for college staffing increases. If that goes through, Ortega hopes it will make a difference. 

 A version of this story aired on WBUR.

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