GCC readies for new students with launch of free community college program

Greenfield Community College

Greenfield Community College FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACHand CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writers

Published: 08-25-2023 4:31 PM

More than 1,300 students age 25 and older attend Holyoke Community College, where the Itsy Bitsy child watch center, the Homestead Market and the Adult Learning Center are among the offerings aimed at improving their educational careers.

With thousands of more potential students across the region, HCC President George Timmons says that they could benefit from MassReconnect, a program initiated by Gov. Maura T. Healey in her budget establishing free community college for people 25 and older.

“MassReconnect will enable our community colleges to do more of what we do best, which is serve students from all ages and all backgrounds, and provide them with an exceptional education that leads to employment and, ultimately, a stronger economy and thriving region,” Timmons said Thursday.

All of the state’s 15 community colleges, including Greenfield Community College, are being awarded $100,000 so that the program can be implemented this fall.

“We are nothing but excited; it’s outstanding for the commonwealth to support the economic and work development of 25 year old and older students,” said GCC interim Dean of Enrollment Management Patrick Tanner. “Removing that barrier to enrollment means the world.”

Tanner said GCC has seen a “good response from the community” in these early stages of MassReconnect — he added the school is expecting a slight increase in enrollment for this coming year, as many other community colleges are — and providing this service will impact both continuing students and those looking get their first degree.

Timmons said HCC has been preparing for this program to begin and there is a bright future for community colleges around the state.

“Our college’s financial aid and student affairs teams have been working diligently to prepare for MassReconnect and to guide students through the process of enrolling at HCC,” Timmons said. “This is an exciting moment for HCC and allMassachusetts community colleges.”

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For GCC, Tanner said MassReconnect plays right into the school’s growing array of services, which include its new internship coordinator position and student wellness services.

The program was officially launched Thursday with an announcement at MassBay Community College’s Wellesley Campus.

There, fighting back tears, incoming MassBay Community College interior design student Danita Mends recounted how she had to drop out of college and enter the workforce in the early 2000s due to financial setbacks.

In corporate America, Mends found she was “hitting ceilings” and “being overlooked constantly” for opportunities. Mends made the decision to return to school, but she ran into more financial obstacles as she became pregnant and had a son.

The latest disruption to her higher education journey is coming to a close due to MassReconnect.

“I got called and was told that I was eligible for this program, which is going to be life-changing for me,” said Mends, who attended Needham Public Schools, at a press conference in Wellesley.

Healey said the program will be transformative for thousands of students, for the colleges and for the economy.

“It will bolster the role of community colleges as economic drivers in our state and help us better meet the needs of businesses to find qualified, well-trained workers,” Healey said. “We can also make progress in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty by helping residents complete their higher education credentials so they can attain good jobs and build a career path.”

It’s also an important investment in people, Healey wrote on Twitter: “Hardworking, resilient people, who want better lives for themselves and their families. Massachusetts will be more affordable, equitable, and competitive because of it.”

Healey invested $20 million in MassReconnect for the first year of implementation in her first budget that she signed earlier this month. This funding covers the full cost of tuition and fees and includes an allowance for books and supplies at each of Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges.

Fall semester I classes at HCC begin Sept. 5, but there are also two additional flexible fall start dates, on Sept. 25 and Oct. 30. For more information about MassReconnect at Holyoke Community College, go to hcc.edu/massreconnect

At GCC, the semester begins Sept. 6 and registration for the spring semester opens to new students Nov. 8. For more information about MassReconnect at Greenfield Community College, visit gcc.mass.edu/massreconnect.

In order to qualify for MassReconnect, students must be 25 or older on the first day of their classes and be a permanent Massachusetts resident for at least one year at the start of the enrolled term. The program is limited to residents who have not previously earned a college degree (associate or bachelor’s) who enroll in at least six credits per semester in an approved program of study leading to an associate degree or certificate at a community college.

MassReconnect will likely support up to 6,500 to 8,000 community college students in the first year, which could grow to closer to 10,000 students by fiscal 2025, depending on how many students take advantage of the new opportunity.

There’s also $12 million in the budget for officials to map out a strategy for launching a universal free community college system in 2024, plus $18 million for a free community college program for nursing students of any age.

Earlier this summer, as the budget remained lodged in private negotiations, community college leaders warned that an increasingly compressed timeline would mean less time to fully implement MassReconnect and recruit potential students for the upcoming year. Noe Ortega, commissioner of the Department of Higher Education, urged people Thursday to “spread the word” about MassReconnect with the fall semester fast approaching.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.