Bristol Community College says its “ready” for free community college program

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Bristol County Community College is one of 15 community colleges offering covered tuition and fees this school year. Staff Photo/Adam Bass
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abass@northstarreporter.com

As the fall semester begins, Bristol Community College is preparing for a significant change–offering free community college for students 25 years and older without a previous degree.

Bristol and 14 other community colleges are implementing the new MassReconnect free community college program for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.

Under MassReconnect, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides $20 million to the colleges to cover tuition and fees for all students as long as they are 25 or older on the first day of classes and have no associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or the equivalent.

Additionally, applicants must enroll at least six credits per semester towards an associate degree or an eligible certificate program and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

MassReconnect was signed into law by Gov. Maura Healey as part of the Fiscal Year 2024 budget.

Bristol Community College Vice President Katie O’Hara said the staff are excited about the new program and expect it to help what she calls “the growing number of adult learners who want to enroll.”

“We are ready to go,” O’Hara said. “Adult learners are our future, and we are getting the push out for our students.”

Even before the budget was signed, O’Hara and the administrative staff had been preparing for a free community college program after Healey announced her support for MassReconnect in January.

O’Hara said she and her team reviewed the plan after it was released in March and posted the requirements students would need to qualify on the school’s website.

O’Hara said it was evident that MassReconnect would be implemented this year after House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka announced their support for the program earlier this year.

“We knew regardless of what the budget looked like, those are some things we could put in place,” O’Hara said. “We were happy that we were so far ahead.”

Tuition and fees at Bristol Community College costs $20,762 for six credits–the minimum amount required for a student under MassReconnect.

O’Hara said the initial $20 million the Commonwealth allocated for MassReconnect will last through this year, but suggested that there might be a request for more money as tuition fees rise in the following years.

“We’re all committed to free community college,” O’Hara said. “We will commit for our learners regardless and hope to see the program continue for years.”

Preparations for MassReconnect involved a widespread information campaign using social media to share details about the program and holding information sessions on campuses.

O’Hara said the best way to help people apply is to educate them on what the program does and the requirements they need to enroll in the program.

“Filling out the FAFSA is critical if they want to apply for MassReconnect,” O’Hara said. “We have a dedicated team, especially on our Attleboro campus, providing as much information and support for people.”

According to the college’s website, a study found that the average age of an enrolled student was 25 years old and that approximately 40 percent of students enrolled in the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters are classified as “adult learners.”

O’Hara said adult learners are crucial for Bristol County’s economy as they can enter the workforce immediately with the degree they earned.

She said free community college helps streamline the school-to-workforce pipeline for those who want a career that requires an associate’s degree and help fill positions that require those who have studied healthcare or security.

“With high school graduates declining, we know that adult learners are going to help benefit the economy,” O’Hara said. “Associates degrees in criminal justice and business are the most popular, but there are also degrees in healthcare, education, and cybersecurity.”