Commentary: Cheering state’s free community college plan

Here’s a shout-out to the newly funded state program, Mass Reconnect, which starts in less than a month. Mass Reconnect provides free community college for anyone 25 years and older without a degree.

The term refers to an effort to reconnect residents of Massachusetts to higher education, for those who may have started college but dropped out, and residents who did not pursue higher education. During the recently concluded state budget process, the program’s $20 million request was supported by House and Senate leadership, as well as by Gov. Healey, who included it as part of her election platform.

The Massachusetts economy is post-industrial, with the largest number of our jobs in the following categories: health care and hospitals, education, biotech, finance and banking, real estate, government, and the service sector. Our largest single private employer is Mass General Brigham.

These industries need educated and/or credentialed workers to operate, but our state is not providing the number they need. Data from the month of May show that only 105,500 people in our workforce are unemployed, out of a total workforce of 3.7 million, while the state has 290,000 job openings.

Making this much worse is that upwards of 30 percent of our workforce is under-skilled in current and future job needs, leaving tens of thousands of jobs unfilled. Businesses will not locate in Massachusetts if they’re unable to find employees.

Demographic studies indicate that the number of working age residents will be reduced by at least 87,000 by 2030 due to the aging of our population. In addition, Massachusetts loses 8,000 working age residents every year due mainly to our high cost of living, while immigration, which used to fill the worker gap, has seen a reduction due to government restrictions. The number of high school graduates has also decreased, due to fewer children being born.

In the health care sector, Massachusetts requires 6,000 new registered nurses per year to accommodate its needs, but our colleges and universities only produce about 5,000 each year. I saw this problem firsthand when I was hospitalized a month ago and found that of the six nurses who covered my unit, five were “travelers” — that is, nurses hired from out of state to deal with the unmet need of hospitals. Travelers make more money than staff nurses, which results in higher cost for health care, including the premiums we pay.

Into this gap in job skills and workforce comes the Mass Reconnect program. The state’s labor and workforce agency estimates that there are more than a million Massachusetts residents over the age of 25 who lack degrees or credentials, and, therefore, qualify for Mass Reconnect.
Sixty-five percent of Massachusetts jobs require a college degree or credential, but only 41 percent of people entering the workforce have post-high school training. Mass Reconnect will make it easier for those without degrees and/or credentials to get them by making community college free. It covers tuition, fees, books, and supplies for those over 25. Just as important, all those entering community college nursing programs will also have zero expenses via an additional $12 million fund specifically set up for nursing.

Mass Reconnect uses the economic incentive of cost-free college to help deal with our state’s structural workforce problem. My hope is that the state can expand this free community college model for other skills in great need, such as behavioral health, technology, and other STEM skills.

Better yet, the FY24 budget contains $12 million “for capacity-building efforts…. necessary for the implementation of a free community college system beginning in the fall of calendar year 2024.”

While we wait for free community college for all, Mass Reconnect is a good start. Because the Legislature got the budget out a month late, the program has only a few weeks to get the word out for the September start of school. Be sure to tell anyone who could benefit from this program. The best way to get into Mass Reconnect is to apply for admission to a community college, and their admissions departments will do the rest.

Bill Walczak was founding president of the Codman Square Health Center and is the current chair of the board of trustees of Bunker Hill Community College. He also serves on the Board of Higher Education.

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