Only two states offer free community college. Lawmakers in Massachusetts want to make it the third.

bunker hill community college

Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Mass.

Massachusetts lawmakers are eyeing a bill that would make them just the third state to offer tuition-free community college for some in-state students. The bill got a hearing last week before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Higher Education.

State Representative Tom Sannicandro, who chairs the Committee and is sponsoring the bill, says it would make community college more accessible to low-income and first-generation students.

"They don't think college is for them and I think if it gets the brand that [it’s] free, they'll say, 'Well yeah, I can afford free community college,'" Sannicandro says.

If it passes, the plan could cost taxpayers up to $160 million each year. Critics of the bill, including Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute, say free community college plans are not likely to generate more funding for higher education.

Baum says community colleges are already cash-strapped, and the little funding they have should be invested in getting more students to complete their certificate or degree. "The problem is that students need more support than they're getting, they need more guidance than they're getting," said Baum.

In a statement, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration said “the governor will carefully review all legislation that comes to his desk and recognizes the important role community colleges play in providing an affordable education and spurring workforce development. Aligning higher education and the needs of the economy by building greater connections between community colleges and local business communities is a priority as the administration works with stakeholders on strategies to close the workforce skills gap.”

The bill comes as President Barack Obama is pushing to make community college free nationwide. Currently, Oregon and Tennessee are the only two states in the country to offer tuition-free community college.

This story was produced by On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.