During a visit to HCC Tuesday, the commissioner of Higher Education announced the "Commonwealth Commitment," a state plan that would guarantee a low-cost bachelor's degree for students who begin their college education at a community college and continue on to a state college or university.
"If you go through a community college two-year degree program and you transfer your credits, you can get a four-year bachelor's degree for approximately $26,000," Santiago said, "and if you get financial aid, the average is about $15,000. This is for the entire degree."
Scholarships could help defray those costs even further, he said.
Santiago said the Dept. of Higher Education expects to officially launch the "Commonwealth Commitment" in a month or so.
"I think the education our students receive at our institutions is second to none," Santiago said during a morning meeting of the HCC Board of Trustees. "I would put it next to any private institution in the state that charges you $50,000 a year. I think it's a great, great value, but the message is not out there."
Santiago has been spreading that message during visits over the past few months to public colleges and universities throughout the state. Tuesday, he spent the day at Holyoke Community College, meeting with trustees, administrators and students and touring the main campus as well as the Center for Health Education and the school's satellite campus downtown.
"I can give you a sense of what I hear from community college students," he told trustees. "They are fundamentally grateful to the community college system for educating them, for transforming their lives. They know that if their lives are transformed, their families' lives are transformed and their communities' lives are transformed."
Santiago said students have talked to him about subjects he never expected, such as homelessness and food insecurity. "They talked to me about the reality of their lives," he said. "It's not just tuition and fees. It's books. It's not just books. It's daycare. It's transportation. It's life. And these students are committed to their studies. Yes, they take a little longer than other students because they have more obstacles to overcome."
State officials hope to help is by enabling the community colleges and state colleges and universities to function more cooperatively. "We need to think as a system of public higher education, as 29 institutions, all unique. They are all different, and that's good. That's the strength of the system we have, but we need to start collaborating and speaking with one voice on issues that are important."
The most obvious example is transfer, he said. The Dept. of Higher Education is working to build a more unified system of transfer.
"It makes no sense to have 2,600 unique and distinct articulation agreements -- 2,600 -- across our public institutions," he said. "That is not a unified system of transfer. So we are working, the community colleges are working with the state universities to create a unified system of transfer where any community college student can go to any four-year institution on the public side."
Eventually, he said, students will be able to transfer from HCC to any four-year state college or university and all their credits will follow.
"Not only your general education credits but also the credits in the major," he said, "so you go to a four-year institution as a junior and not as someone who has to repeat 30 credits or where the credits only count as electives and not toward a major."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Dept. of Higher Education, talks to students over lunch at HCC. (Right) DHE Commissioner Carlos Santiago talks to Kathy Hankel, dean of Health and Natural Science, during a tour of the Center for Health Education. (Thumbnail) Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the state Dept. of Higher Education