BOSTON (SHNS) – Described as wins by education advocates across the state, all public school students will have access to free breakfast and lunch, and undocumented immigrants who went to high school in Massachusetts can now qualify for lower in-state tuition rates.
Just weeks before the school year starts, Gov. Maura Healey signed the fiscal year 2024 budget Wednesday, including the two popular education policies as well as a commitment to provide last-dollar funding for residents ages 25 and older to attend community college for free.
The budget dedicates $172 million to the universal school meals program, making Massachusetts the eighth state in the country to make the free meals program permanent after the policy began in the pandemic with federal money. Of the $172 million price tag, $69 million is coming out of a new $1 billion pot of money available for the first time this year after voters in November passed a new 4 percent surtax on annual household income above $1 million.
“I know the stress of being in the classroom seeing kids come in from the projects hungry, falling asleep at their desk because they haven’t eaten since lunch the day before,” House Speaker Ron Mariano, who was a teacher in Quincy before joining the Legislature and pushed for the policy’s inclusion in the budget, said at the budget signing Wednesday. “What we have done is taken a huge transformative step in this country to do away with hunger within our children.”
Though there was broad agreement among representatives to continue to offer free meals through the budget, the Senate and Healey originally suggested extending the program for another year in a standalone bill rather than as part of the state’s annual spending. But both the governor and Senate president on Wednesday celebrated the program’s inclusion in the annual state spending plan.
“Universal school meals will be available to our children so their bellies won’t be grumbling in their schools while they’re trying to get work done. That will also save families approximately $1,200 per student per year so that they can spend that money on other things for their students,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.
As of June 2023, an estimated 26 percent of households in Massachusetts with children were facing food insecurity, according to Project Bread.
Healey called the program an “investment in childhood nutrition.”
The Senate also got one of its priorities into law via the budget — students without legal immigration status will qualify for in-state tuition rates and state financial aid at public colleges or universities in Massachusetts if they have attended a high school in the state for at least three years or obtained their GED here.
“We give every student who wants to go to college an opportunity without worrying about excessive costs or immigration status,” Spilka said.
Neither House Democrats nor Healey included the measure in their own budget bills, though the House voted last week to advance a version of the budget that included the policy.
In-state students will pay $17,357 in tuition to attend the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus in Amherst this year, while their classmates who aren’t from Massachusetts will pay $39,293, according to the university.
Worcester State University said it will charge $10,786 for Massachusetts undergraduates and $16,866 for out-of-state undergraduates. And at Bunker Hill Community College, the cost of four credits is $920 for in-state students and $1,744 for out-of-state students, the school said.
The shift in status to “in-state students” also means more aid for undocumented immigrants. As government aid has struggled to keep pace with demand and tuition increases, UMass-generated financial aid has grown to represent 69 percent of free aid available for students — $395 million in fiscal year 2023. Of the university-generated aid, 81 percent goes to in-state students.
“A new generation of Massachusetts students is now one step closer to achieving the American dream,” said Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Tuition equity will make college more affordable for all eligible immigrants, regardless of immigration status, and empower the workforce of the future. Expanding eligibility of in-state tuition rates to all residents will prove a huge benefit to the state, as the Commonwealth is currently grappling with declining college enrollment and a dwindling workforce. Tuition equity will help solve the problem and keep Massachusetts competitive.”
Wednesday’s budget signing makes Massachusetts the 24th state to offer the lower, in-state tuition rate for those without legal immigration status.
In a 2019 analysis of Census data, the Migration Policy Institute estimated Massachusetts had about 15,000 residents without legal immigration status between the ages of 3 and 17 and another 31,000 between the ages of 18 and 24.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said in May that he does not believe the measure would generate any substantial cost for the state and would instead steer new revenue toward campuses by attracting more students who might currently be daunted by the higher out-of-state tuition costs.
“The reports I’ve seen [are] actually income generated. We know that enrollment at our community colleges has declined precipitously, especially since the pandemic. Enrollment in all higher ed has declined. So this will provide increased enrollment at our higher education institutes,” he said. “Schools would see a net gain in revenue because more students would attend with in-state tuition rates.”
By signing the budget, Healey also fulfills one of her campaign promises. Students 25 and older can now attend community college with a commitment from the state that it will pay whatever financial aid doesn’t cover for tuition and books.
Healey, who pitched the program while campaigning last year, said the so-called MassReconnect program could reach 1.8 million Bay Staters who are eligible to receive state aid as they earn a college degree or certificate.
The budget also includes a Senate-backed initiative to offer free community college for all nursing students in the state amidst a “dire need for nurses,” Spilka said.