'Free' college plan pitched by Baker, Walsh

The governor and mayor of Boston will make a bipartisan pitch today for a tuition-free college program available to Boston residents, but a Democrat running for governor is vying to make free public college for all part of the 2018 campaign.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic Mayor Martin Walsh are scheduled to highlight the Boston Bridge program, which will allow all 2017 high school graduates who live in Boston to earn a four-year degree without having to pay tuition or mandatory fees.

"College affordability too often serves as a barrier for students in the Commonwealth seeking to complete a degree, and this program is intended to provide more opportunities for a quality education," Baker said in a statement.

Walsh, in a statement, said the Boston Bridge partnership "means that a free bachelor's degree is within reach for all of Boston's low-income high school students."

Eligible students must meet federal Pell grant income standards and must enroll full-time at either Bunker Hill Community College, Roxbury Community College or Mass. Bay Community College.

While at a community college, the city of Boston will pay for each student's tuition and mandatory fees, after accounting for Pell grants and other deductions. The students will be required to complete their associate's degree within two-and-a-half years and then transfer to a Massachusetts public college or state university.

While the student attends a state public college or state university, the city of Boston and the state will together pay the student's costs, excluding room and board. The student will be required to complete their bachelor's degree within two years.

The tuition-free Boston Bridge program is similar to Boston's Tuition Free Community College initiative and the state's Commonwealth Commitment, both which were launched last year with similar goals.

As of March, there were 50 students enrolled in Boston's program — which pays for up to three years of tuition and mandatory fees at the same three community colleges as the Boston Bridge program. The state's program — which provides discounts and fee freezes for community college students who transfer to a public college or state university — had 80 students participating as of April, according to the state.

While Baker and Walsh touted Tuesday the Boston Bridge program for students who live in the city, the Democratic mayor of Newton angling to take Baker's job next year is running with a platform that calls for free public college for all Massachusetts residents, "just like high school."

"Does anyone in the state of Massachusetts, including you two, think that graduating with a high school degree allows someone to make ends meet in this economy? It's fantasy," Setti Warren, a Democratic candidate for governor, said on WGBH with co-hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan last week. "We know we need to offer universal public college if we are going to give people the skill set, the foundation, for opportunity. It's one of the driving reasons for economic inequality in our state."

Warren acknowledged that he does not have a cost estimate for his free public college plan — "the first question is what's the cost of not doing it" — but said that raising taxes is key to making his proposal work.