BOSTON — The chairman of a key committee studying proposals to make public colleges and universities free in Massachusetts said he needs to see a detailed cost analysis before he’s willing to back the measures.
Sen. Michael O. Moore, a Millbury Democrat whose district includes parts of Upton and Shrewsbury, said he supports the push for free tuition at state schools, but wants fine-grained estimates of the cost and number of students who would participate.
Moore, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, heard testimony Thursday on a pair of bills aimed at providing a free college option for some, or all, students in the state.
One measure sponsored by Rep. Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat, would provide one full year of tuition and fees at community colleges, state universities, and the University of Massachusetts system. It would be open to Massachusetts residents whose family income is less than twice the state median family income.
A different bill backed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, would provide a free public college education for any student from a family earning less than $200,000 per year — covering the cost of tuition, fees, housing and transportation.
“Both proposals I’d be in favor of,” Moore said in an interview Friday. “It’s if we have the revenues to support them. That’s the, I think, the main stumbling block, or hurdle, that we have to get over.”
A majority of Americans — 62 percent — now support making tuition to public colleges and universities free, according to a July 2016 survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International on behalf of the website Bankrate.
The concept emerged as a theme in last year’s presidential election, and was also championed by former President Barack Obama, who proposed sending students to community college for free for two years, with the federal government covering three quarters of the cost and states picking up the remainder.
After Obama floated the idea, Moore co-sponsored a bill with former Ashland Rep. Tom Sannicandro that proposed making community college free for all Massachusetts residents, with no limitations on family income.
With a new administration in the White House, and with cost estimates varying widely, Moore said he now favors rewording the legislation to instead form a panel of higher education officials to analyze free college plans.
While a study would slow the momentum around the proposals, Moore said he supports making college free in some form.
“Maybe this is the next step we need to go in to really prepare our workforce” he said, “or get the kids the proper skills that they’re going to need in the advanced technology economy that we’re building.”
A free option could significantly reduce the burden placed on students at Framingham State University. The average family income of students enrolled in the school during the 2015-2016 academic year stood at a little more than $84,200. About 40 percent were eligible for federal student aid, and the vast majority received some form of financial support.
Even so, undergraduates leave the school with an average of nearly $29,500 worth of debt after earning their degree.
FSU spokesman Dan Magazu said the university supports efforts to help students and their families pay for college.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that this is a huge issue across the country, in terms of college affordability,” he said, “and we think any additional support from the state would be wonderful.”
Garballey’s bill, which has the backing of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), would create a so-called Finish Line Scholarship Program that would cover one year’s worth of tuition and fees in a program leading to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree at a Massachusetts public college or university.
PHENOM executive director Zac Bears said the program would be an important first step toward the goal of free or debt-free higher education in Massachusetts.
“It is something that we can do now to address the most pressing problem that we’re facing,” he said, “which is that there are students who are going to our schools for two or three or four years, taking on $15,000 or $20,000 in debt, and then they’re leaving without a degree.”
Bears pegged the cost of free college programs at between $500 million and $700 million annually. During testimony Thursday on Beacon Hill, advocates pointed to several potential funding sources, including casino revenue and a proposed 4 percent surtax on income over $1 million. The so-called “millionaire’s tax” is expected to go before voters as a ballot initiative in 2018.
Some have also proposed taxing certain higher education endowments as sources of funding to pay the costs of free public higher education. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts has knocked the idea as unconstitutional.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh in May announced a tuition-free college program available to Boston residents, while 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.”
“We were the first state to recognize that all children need an education, but somehow we’ve gotten stuck on this idea that education begins with preschool and ends in 12th grade,” a page on Setti Warren’s campaign website reads. “Massachusetts can once again stand at the forefront of national progress on education by making public colleges free.”
Colin A. Young of the State House News Service and Daily News staff writer Jim Haddadin contributed to this report. Haddadin can be reached at 617-863-7144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @JimHaddadin