Will Massachusetts pass a bill for free community college?

Ashleigh Bennet works on a math problem during a class at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
Ashleigh Bennet works on a math problem during a class at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. –Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

Amongst the dozens of people who crammed into a room at the State House to testify about higher education bills Wednesday, one demographic was noticeably absent — students.

Still, Natalie Higgins, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, made sure to speak for students, many of whom were unable to attend because they were in class or working.

“This country makes endless claims about the importance of higher education but Massachusetts has made it nearly impossible to attain it,’’ said Lauren, a student from Holyoke Community College, whose statement Higgins read aloud. “As I juggle two jobs and a full-time class load, I can barely get enough money to cover the absurd cost of textbooks, which then means I can’t buy a car or move out of my terrible apartment.’’

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Lauren and other students like her might have their financial burdens eased. State Rep. Tom Sannicandro and State Sen. Michael Moore filed a bill earlier this year that, if passed, would make community college tuition free for Massachusetts residents. The bill was debated in the State House on Wednesday, along with other bills dealing with higher education funding.

Massachusetts wouldn’t be the first state to pass free community college legislation. Tennessee passed a statewide plan for free tuition last year, and Oregon passed its own plan in July.

During his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced his “America’s College Promise’’ proposal, which would make two years of community college free for students nationwide. When he announced the program, Obama said an estimated 9 million students could benefit nationwide and save an average of $3,800 in tuition each year.

Last week, the president promoted the program again, this time with a PSA called “Head’s Up America’’ that features a smattering of celebrities encouraging viewers to “join the movement.’’ However, some legislators believe individual state programs, not one federal program, better serve students. Tennessee’s WBIR reported that several of the state’s legislators weren’t sure if their program would be effective at the national level.

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“The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state’s community college students already have a federal Pell grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800-per-year tuition,’’ said Tennessee State Sen. Lamar Alexander in a statement. “The state pays the difference–$500 on average. Nationally, in 16 states, the average Pell grant pays for the typical student’s entire community college tuition.’’

The average community college tuition in Massachusetts is $5,300 for full-time, in-state students, according to data first reported by The Boston Globe. The pending Massachusetts bill doesn’t specify how the state will cover the tuition.

At the bill hearing, Donnie McGee, vice president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, testified that she and other officials were concerned that none of the funding is going to the infrastructure of community colleges. If more students have access to community college, she said, the institutions will need more support to be able to accommodate them.

“We need to look at the hidden costs of free college,’’ she said. “We want to deal with the debt crisis, but we never want to have to turn students away.’’

Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges currently enroll about 196,000 students. The Joint Committee on Higher Education will now review the bill to determine if any changes should be made before it would advance through the legislative process.

Related gallery: Newsweek says these are the top high schools in Mass.

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