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Massachusetts, Cambridge Expand Higher Education Access Through New Free College Programs

The City of Cambridge launched the Cambridge Promise Pilot this academic year to enable 20 to 30 graduates from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School from historically marginalized groups to attend Bunker Hill Community College tuition-free.
The City of Cambridge launched the Cambridge Promise Pilot this academic year to enable 20 to 30 graduates from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School from historically marginalized groups to attend Bunker Hill Community College tuition-free. By Michelle Liu
By Sally E. Edwards, Crimson Staff Writer

Since the founding of Harvard as America’s first college, Massachusetts has been closely associated with elite universities. Now, state and local leaders are pushing to make the state the face of accessible higher education.

This summer, Massachusetts Governor Maura T. Healey ’92 signed a $56 billion state budget into law that included the MassReconnect program, which will allow Massachusetts residents who are 25 or older and have lived in the state for more than a year to attend community college at no cost.

Just over a month later, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui announced the Cambridge Promise Pilot — a program that will enable 20 to 30 Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduates from historically marginalized groups to attend Bunker Hill Community College tuition-free.

Cambridge formally launched the pilot this academic year. If the program is successful, it could set the stage for a much broader free community college program for residents.

In an interview with The Crimson Friday, Healey said she attributes state and local governments’ commitment to higher education to the “fundamental” and “foundational” role that education plays in the state’s history and ethos.

“It’s enshrined in our Constitution,” she said. “We are home to the first public school and public library, and it is really important that we be a leader in the space, and that we make education available to everyone.”

Healey said she was “really happy” to sign the MassReconnect program into law and looks forward to helping Massachusetts residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to pursue a degree.

“There are about 700,000 residents who had some credits towards a post-secondary degree, but had just dropped out of school for one reason or another,” she said.

Healey said she believes the program will help “get them back off the sidelines, in school, and in the workforce.”

While the state government invests in access to higher education, Cambridge officials have simultaneously worked to implement the Cambridge Promise Pilot. Siddiqui said that after learning that 25 to 35 percent of CRLS graduates do not attend college, her administration sought to create the program as an accessible path to higher education.

“We’ve also heard through the College Success Initiative for the city that money is a huge issue,” she said. “And, we don’t want the cost of education to be a barrier for our students to enter college.”

“These are the bare minimum that we can do to help some of our students and think about how we’re closing the college success gap,” she added.

State and local leaders are implementing initiatives to increase access to tuition-free higher education in Massachusetts.
State and local leaders are implementing initiatives to increase access to tuition-free higher education in Massachusetts. By Joey Huang

Siddiqui said that she looks forward to seeing how the Cambridge Promise Pilot can work in concert with state-level policies like MassReconnect. She specifically cited the minimum age requirement of the MassReconnect program, and said that the Cambridge Promise Pilot could help “recent grads of Cambridge Rindge and Latin.”

“There’s a gap in Reconnect — even if you take a gap year, it’s like, you’re 19 or 20 — you know, you have years before you’re 25,” she said. “So I think this kind of program could fill that gap for some of our students.”

After two joint meetings among the city, MIT, and Harvard this summer, the two universities agreed to provide $25,000 each for the first year of the pilot. Siddiqui said she hopes that the universities will “be involved in helping us grow this program” in the future.

“I hope not only they continue to fund it, but also to help be on our advisory group for the future of the program and help us obtain more funding for this from the community,” she said.

As the Cambridge Promise pilot begins its first year, Ammarah Rehman — the director of education and policy for Cambridge — said the City wants to ensure the program has “the most impact on our students.”

“The pilot is really just its initial phase and trying to understand what the outcomes could look like,” she said. “We’re trying to see what’s working, what’s not working, and where we can improve.”

As Siddiqui looks to the future of the program, she hopes that the program will help students “go to college, and matriculate, and graduate, and then earn livable wages.”

“I think that the pulse, the leading inquiry, is, ‘How can we make people’s lives easier and better, and not have them stress so much about money, in a community that is so resource rich?’” she said. “We’re really proud of that work.”

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

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