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Boston Experiments With Free College Tuition

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh launching the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment in 2014 (Credit: The City of Boston)

Student loan debt provides plenty of talking points for national actors, but states and cities are actually crafting legislation to address it. Following the lead of states like Tennessee and New York and the city of Detroit, Boston will now allow high school graduates from low-income families to attend community colleges and state universities for free.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Bake announced the new initiative Tuesday, the Boston Globe reports. The program, called Boston Bridge, will be “open to low-income graduates of the city’s school system as well as those from charter and parochial schools, starting with this year’s graduates,” according to the paper.

To qualify, students need to meet the income qualifications for a federal Pell grant­ — which translates to a household making roughly $50,000 or less. According to the Boston Business Journal, the city will pick up the tab for community college, and then if students transfer to a Massachusetts public college or university, the city and state will jointly cover the costs for tuition and mandatory fees, excluding room and board.

While some students praised the new initiative, a number of college affordability advocates said the program didn’t go far enough to address college debt burdens on middle-income students.

“Every child in Massachusetts, regardless of where they are born, who their parents are, or how much money they have, should be able to go to college without signing their lives away to crushing student loan debt,” Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat hoping to challenge Baker, said in a press release issued shortly after the initiative was announced.

In 2015, more than 40 million U.S. adults had at least one outstanding student debt — and average tuition costs rose every year between 1976 and 2006.

The Globe reports that since 2014, 35 state legislatures have considered bills concerning free college tuition, but only a handful — in New York, Tennessee, Arkansas, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island and Oregon — have risen all the way to the governor’s desk.

But some research (along with a basic understanding of the country’s various wage gaps) has shown that while college debt may be universal, access to higher education is not. Children from low- and high-income families tend to have similar earning outcomes depending on where they go to college. But access to the colleges turning out the top earners is limited for lower-income students, particularly for those in the bottom half of the income distribution.

Still, students obviously don’t need to go to a selective Ivy to improve their economic outlook — a fact that was taken up by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan when he announced that all Detroit high-school graduates would receive two years of tuition at a community college for free in 2016. The year before, Denver voters narrowly defeated a similar measure, which would have given students up to $4,000 of indirect scholarship support, with an additional 8-cent sales tax on every $100 purchase going to nonprofits for scholarships.