Economy, colleges and students will benefit from expanding in-state tuition

TIM JEAN/Staff photoDr. Lane Glenn, President, Northern Essex Community College speaks to the class of 2016 during the schools Fifty-Fourth Annual Commencement Exercises. 5/21/16

The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education has estimated that by 2020 over 70 percent of the jobs in the state will require some form of college education; yet we are currently on a path to be nearly 60,000 college educated adults short of the workforce we will need.

This “skills gap” will only be solved by educating more of our residents, particularly low-income, minority, first-generation and immigrant students who are currently being underserved by our higher education system.

 In the United States all children are entitled to free K-12 public education, regardless of their legal status. But when they finish high school, their options for a college education vary widely by state — and Massachusetts is among a shrinking number of states that do not provide affordable access to higher education for undocumented youth. 

The Higher Education Equity Act (S.669/H.3003) filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, D-Boston, and Rep. Juana Matias, D-Lawrence, is a simple, affordable and long-overdue move in the right direction. 

If passed, the Higher Education Equity Act will allow undocumented students who have attended a Massachusetts high school for three or more years, have graduated, have a federal Taxpayer Identification Number and have registered for the Selective Service where required, to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and state-funded financial assistance to attend Massachusetts state colleges, universities or community colleges. 

The 15 community colleges in Massachusetts, speaking with one voice through the Community College Executive Office, have supported legislation like the Higher Education Equity Act for more than a decade.

As our collective testimony has indicated, we believe such a move would be a win for everyone involved — the students, the commonwealth, the taxpayers and the colleges.

More than 20 other states have already passed similar legislation including nearby New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and, earlier this year, Maine.

Given the nationwide decline in college enrollment, neighboring states like Maine and New York are also offering in-state tuition to Massachusetts residents and threatening to drain even more talent from the commonwealth. We should be taking every step possible to compete more vigorously to prepare all Bay State residents for our future workforce needs — before they leave the state entirely.

In 2001, Northern Essex Community College became the first federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution in New England. Nearly 40 percent of our students are Hispanic, mostly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and some of them are undocumented. This HSI designation has provided us with access to special funding and services, such as nearly $5 million in Title V funding from the U.S. Department of Education aimed at expanding and improving educational services for Hispanic students. 

The results have been dramatic and vital to our local economy and workforce: Hispanic student enrollment, particularly in Lawrence, has nearly doubled; the success “gap” between Hispanic students and majority students has closed considerably; and the proportion of Hispanic graduates at the college tripled, from 10 percent of the graduating class in 2001 to more than 30 percent in 2016.

The Higher Education Equity Act will provide access to Northern Essex and other public colleges to even more underserved students.

It would allow Massachusetts colleges and universities to be more competitive and generate additional tuition dollars to support themselves, in an environment where state resources are shrinking and even neighboring states are looking to attract our students.

Receiving in-state tuition from immigrant students, regardless of their documentation status, is better than receiving no tuition from those students.

It is better for the colleges, it is better for the students, and in the long run it is, of course, better for the commonwealth to have educated residents who will contribute to the workforce we need.

Lane Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill and Lawrence.

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