A Black college professor stands at the front of a college classroom in a suit jacket, talking to his students.
Image credit: AnnaStills on istock.com

Massachusetts Democrats are practically tripping over themselves these days to put new money toward an ambitious goal of providing free community college tuition to residents. But state leaders have shown little interest so far in directing the funding toward notoriously underpaid community college faculty and staff.

The tension between these two ideas—paying for students to attend community college and providing competitive, or living, wages for their teachers—is one likely to play out across the country as other states (and President Joe Biden) contemplate free community college plans like those being proposed in Massachusetts.

Last year, Democratic Massachusetts governor Maura Healey helped create a program to pay for residents 25 years and older to obtain free associate’s degrees and other high-quality certificates. Not to be outdone, Democrats in the Massachusetts Senate recently have put forth their own $75.5 million plan to offer universal, tuition-free community college for all Bay State residents.

Meanwhile, a trio of Democratic state legislators are pushing a separate bill known as the CHERISH Act (Committing to Higher Education the Resources to Insure a Strong and Healthy Public Higher Education System). This bill seeks to offer students a debt-free education from all public higher education institutions, including the state’s 15 community colleges.

“I’m thrilled that we have taken access to higher education to the next level, as this initiative will bolster our educated workforce and lay the foundation for generations to come,” Democratic senator Michael J. Rodrigues said in a press release announcing the Senate’s universal community college plan. “Tuition free Community College impacts individuals most in need and whom otherwise would not be afforded this opportunity. It will greatly help to keep our workforce graduates stand ready to meet the challenges of a global economy.”

These plans, however, neglect a nagging problem among Massachusetts’ community colleges: woefully inadequate pay for their teachers.

A recent study commissioned by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) found that the state’s public higher education faculty salaries trail other nearby states and “peer” states like California when adjusted for the cost of living.

Faculty can only be as good as they’re supported to be.”

For example, the study found that Massachusetts’ community college salaries ranked last, at an average of $68,324.

“Community college faculty have the worst pay,” said MTA president Max Page, specifically noting the disparity between community college faculty in Massachusetts and California. “You see that the average faculty community colleges in California make $40,000 more,” he said of the study.

“We did this study,” he added, “and the overall finding was that in all three levels—community colleges, state universities, UMass—our faculty and staff are underpaid dramatically compared to nearby states and to our peer states….And the community colleges, it is the worst.”

In 2022, several chapters of the Massachusetts Community College Council, the union representing faculty and professional staff at the state’s community colleges, elected to stage a labor protest known as “work to rule”—still ongoing in the case of at least one chapter, representing faculty and staff at Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College, the state’s biggest community college.

In so-called work-to-rule protests, employees refuse to do any tasks that are not expressly laid out in their contract—from answering emails after hours to taking on unpaid additional work.

The union, which has fought tooth and nail for small raises, delivered years late when at all, has organized a work-to-rule protest because its members are prohibited from striking.

“Faculty can only be as good as they’re supported to be,” said Shana Berger, an associate professor in the English department at Bunker Hill Community College. “It’s just not realistic to think that you can support faculty with living wages at this rate.

“I have a master’s and a half. I did just get tenure, so it will go up in the fall, but I make about $60K,” she said. “I’m a single mom.”

Berger said that she and her colleagues are required by contract to teach five classes per semester, with each class capped at 22 students.

“So, that’s 22 times five each semester times three essays a semester,” she said. “It’s a lot. It’s a lot of work.”

Berger also noted that there’s a saying in education: faculty teaching conditions are student learning conditions.

“Our parameters for raises are set by the governor. We need the governor to step in and call for bigger raises, better working conditions.”

Coincidentally, Governor Healey was scheduled to deliver the commencement at Berger’s community college this month. Massachusetts governor Maura Healey’s press office did not return a request for comment by NPQ.

“She talks a lot about supporting higher education and education in general,” Berger said, “and it’s really important that she puts the money where her mouth is so that we can really have a good system that supports community college students to be successful.”