The Inside Scoop on the Commonwealth Commitment
At MEFA we're focused on college affordability, so it seems natural that we talk a lot about the Commonwealth Commitment, a program that allows a student to go through our public college and university system here in Massachusetts at a significantly reduced cost.
Recently, I had the great pleasure to meet and speak with Elena Quiroz-Livanis, Chief of Staff and Assistant Commissioner for Academic Affairs and Student Success for the MA Department of Higher Education, who manages the Commonwealth Commitment program. Elena has been in Massachusetts for eight years, after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in political science.
Julie: Tell me about your role here at the Department of Higher Education.
Elena: As a Chief of Staff, I directly support the Commissioner and Department colleagues as we work to advance the goals of the Board of Higher Education. In my role in Academic Affairs, I work on policies and projects which seek to transform developmental education, making sure that students are appropriately assessed for readiness and get the support they need to move forward. This means valuing the assets our students bring to our campuses and challenging ourselves to think creatively about developing and implementing better ways to assist our students. I also work with a team and campus partners to create and maintain a comprehensive unified system of transfer for students, in effect making transitions from one MA college or university to another as seamless as possible. MassTransfer, our suite of statewide programs, includes policies and programs related to various transfer pathways, including the Gen Ed Foundation Pathway, the A2B (Associate to Baccalaureate) Pathway, and Reverse Transfer Pathway. In order to make it seamless, the system and out institutions must honor the time, resources, and efforts students have spent at a post-secondary institution and allow for transferability.
Julie: Can you tell me a little more about the Reverse Transfer Pathway?
Elena: Our Reverse Transfer Pathway was built for students who start at a community college and move on to a state university or UMass campus before receiving an associate degree. Through Reverse Transfer, students who made progress toward an associate degree prior to transferring may apply credit earned at a four-year institution back to their community college to complete the associate degree requirements. This is important because it allows the student to earn a post-secondary credential, which they can add to their resume. The associate degree then enhances a student's opportunities for employment, certifications, promotions and pay increases.
Julie: When we're out across the Commonwealth talking with students and families, we love to talk about the Commonwealth Commitment. Can you share how you describe the program?
Elena: The Commonwealth Commitment launched in 2016, coinciding with the launch of our statewide transfer pathways. It falls under MassTransfer and provides students who are able to attend school full-time and maintain a 3.0 GPA with a series of financial benefits including a tuition and fee freeze and per-semester rebates that add up to thousands of dollars in savings and help mitigate the cost of college. The Commonwealth Commitment allows a student to start at any community college and transfer to any state university or UMass campus in the public system and earn a baccalaureate degree in one of over 40 majors. The program parameters were put in place based on evidence that has shown these to be early indicators of success, including full-time attendance and earning an associate degree with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. The program was built on existing statewide initiatives with the goal of promoting affordability and completion.
Julie: And we know both are important!
Elena: Yes, and we know that the longer it takes a student to get a degree, the more money it costs and they are also losing out on foregone salary. The Commonwealth Commitment is the most comprehensive of our transfer programs. The commitment from the student is greater, as is the commitment from the Commonwealth! If a student can take advantage of the Commonwealth Commitment and MassGrantPLUS, they can really make a dent in the cost of a bachelor's degree.
Julie: How would you compare this transfer program to programs in other states?
Elena: It really is a unique approach to affordability. We certainly follow national trends, but the Commonwealth Commitment is one of the most comprehensive programs especially because it involves an entire state system. A recent NEBHE paper on transfer programs ranked MA very highly. You can read about it here.
Julie: MEFA has written a couple of blog posts about community college success stories. Here is a recent one. How can we get the word out about this program?
Elena: Well, we're grateful to partners like MEFA who are helping us spread the word! We don't have advertising dollars, so we really need to rely on those who work directly with students and families to let them know about the program. At the same time, we've got to encourage the belief that starting your education at a Massachusetts community college is a great choice. We need to help the public see community college education is both an affordable and high-quality option.
Recently there was a social media campaign that used #ENDCCSTIGMA. Many families are aware of the benefits of a community college education and we would like more to know.
Julie: And about the Commonwealth Commitment, how do students learn about it?
Elena: We try to get out into the community to schools and other organizations that serve students to spread the word. Our community colleges have also deployed a number of different strategies to recruit students. Campus advisors are kept up to date on the program and encouraged to work with students on their campuses. Here is the link to the Mass Transfer website. Additionally, we have a Mass Transfer cost savings calculator that students can use to calculate how much they can save by using the various transfer programs including the Commonwealth Commitment.
Julie: What else would you like to share with us?
Elena: Two years ago we partnered with Liberty Mutual and the NAACP to provide scholarships to Commonwealth Commitment students. Through its annual LEADA@Liberty Scholarship, Liberty Mutual Insurance presented four recipients scholarships of $2,500. Launched in 2017, the LEADA@Liberty Scholarship program is designed to offset the cost of college for students of African American descent who are enrolled in a community college through the Commonwealth Commitment and who plan to complete a degree at a state college or university. We are hoping this opens the door for additional partnerships for scholarships, internships, and employment. Here is information about this great scholarship opportunity.
For further information about MassTransfer and Commonwealth Commitment, go here.
Elena Quiroz-Livanis is the Chief of Staff and Assistant Commissioner of Academic Affairs and Student Success at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Elena is also a doctoral student in the Higher Education program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has been at the Department for six years and oversees the system's efforts to create a unified system of transfer and transform developmental education.