“With 37,000 fewer community college students today than a decade ago, every one of Massachusetts’ community colleges has lost at least 30% of their student population, with the steepest declines occurring during the pandemic.”

“It’s money. It's not being able to take care of your basic needs. People cannot afford to go to school. I'm telling you that's what it is: it's money,” said Esha Boyd, a student at Bridgewater State who graduated from Bristol Community College last year.

Like many of her peers at Bristol, Boyd returned to school later in life and with the added responsibility of caring for her two children. To make it through, Boyd worked side jobs and relied on academic aid. But she also had uncommon advantages, like savings from a successful business she sold.

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Without savings to fall back on, many of her friends and former classmates have been unable to juggle the demands of full-time work, school, and parenting. One close friend at Bristol, another parent of two, shared with Boyd that “she was doing well and then she just told me that her last two classes were overwhelming and she had to drop those… I'm not sure if she's gonna be able to finish.”

In Massachusetts, like elsewhere, the community college population is a diverse and often low-income group of students, said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. These students are highly price-sensitive, including to inflation in rent and food prices and to the historically low unemployment rate, which has made workers sought after.

In combination, it’s more difficult than ever to convince low-income people, working parents, and even enrolled part-time students to prioritize school over work. People simply can’t afford to take time off for classes — which is also reflected by the higher percentage of high school graduates choosing to enter the labor force every year.

Governor Maura Healey, in an effort to bolster enrollment, has announced a proposal to make community college free for Massachusetts residents older than 25, which so far has survived budget debates in both chambers of the state legislature.

In announcing the program, Healey spoke of “expand[ing] opportunity for all and strengthen[ing] our economy.”

Despite enrollment declines that are more severe by far than public and private four-year institutions, community colleges continue educating more than double the number of undergraduates in the state university system.

Administrators like Dr. Laura Douglas, the president at Bristol, said they have long anticipated some enrollment declines, which are largely predictable with birth rates. For example, the 17% enrollment decline in the state university system since 2013 is almost identical to the drop in birth rates for those entering cohorts’ birth years.

But community colleges have lost students at more than twice that rate. “It feels like a new era,” said Douglas — who has dealt with a 37% enrollment decline over the last decade, which matches the average decline among the state’s community colleges.

And these institutions aren’t out of the woods yet.

“Even before the pandemic, we knew that 2025 was going to be the year in which we were going to see a sharp decline,” Douglas said. “And that's because the last recession — from 2007 to 2008 — really had an effect on birth rates.”

In addition, lingering effects of the pandemic will continue to play a role, said Mackinnon, pointing out that people of color and low-income groups, which are key demographics for community colleges, were hit harder by the pandemic.

“The impact of the pandemic has hit the core of who community college students represent,” he said. “We’ve seen that directly in precipitous [enrollment] drops.”

Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate remains low, at 3.5%, and could still be decreasing, rounding out a perfect storm for enrollment declines to continue.

Mackinnon said he believes these declines will have long-term and noticeable effects on regional workforces and the overall economy. That’s because community college graduates are significantly more likely to hail from and subsequently stay in their communities. “Keep in mind that community colleges don't have dorms, so they really serve the communities that their name speaks to,” Mackinnon said.

“Bristol’s students are from the South Coast and are very likely to stay … ensuring that New Bedford and Fall River and the South Coast region have the skilled workforce they need,” he said.

A two-year associate’s degree increases lifetime earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars, when compared to a high-school graduate, and can launch a career in health care, management, and other fields. Schools regularly work with employers to create certificate or degree programs for in-demand industries, like new offshore wind programs at Bristol.

Mackinnon also noted that community colleges are by far the most affordable path to a four-year degree; transferring after two years to complete a bachelor’s — as Boyd is doing — is many thousands of dollars less expensive than four years of in-state tuition.

Healey’s proposal to support community college students, called MassReconnect, fulfills campaign promises to reinvest in education and is supported by state Senate President Karen Spilka. Based on successful initiatives in Michigan and Tennessee, the program sets aside $20 million to fund “last-dollar” financial support for Massachusetts residents 25 or older who don’t already have a degree.

Included is the cost of “tuition, fees, books and supplies as well as provide funding for career and wraparound support services to encourage retention and degree-completion,” according to a press release from the Governor’s office.

“We see it as being a big investment in what community colleges provide to the students of the Commonwealth,” said Mackinnon.

At Bristol, the average student is about 26 years old, said President Douglas. With MassReconnect, about 40% of the student body would now qualify, and many more students on temporary leave would be able to return to their studies.

“I think that it's just really important to remain competitive in Massachusetts,” Douglas said about the program. “When we don't have an educated and trained workforce, we will not do as well.”

Some advocates, like Mackinnon, hope that MassReconnect is one step toward making community college free for all students, an extension of the government’s K-12 commitment that better suits the needs of a modern economy.

For Boyd, the Bristol graduate now studying at Bridgewater, the proposed support for community colleges is exciting. “Once you go to school, it opens you up to things that you would've never thought about. I think that it does something to your spirit when you go to school.”

Boyd is now studying social work, and hopes to get a master’s degree or attend law school upon her planned graduation from Bridgewater next May. “It's a blessing at 43 years old to be able to still be learning things,” she said.

With the cost of community college education removed, the nearly 696,000 Massachusetts residents with some college credit but no degree – the majority of whom are over 25, according to the Governor’s office — could find support for resuming their education.

With Mass ReConnect surviving the Senate budget debate, Mackinnon says it is “all but certain that it will be in the final budget.”

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@petarenapro.com.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited enrollment numbers in the UMass system. The article was updated on June 8, 2023, and includes appropriate references to the State University system. 

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