By Marcus E. Howard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Massachusetts on Thursday unveiled what state officials called the first initiative in the country to offer tuition rebates to full-time students who begin their studies at a community college and complete a bachelor's degree at a state university.
The program, called the Commonwealth Commitment, provides a 10 percent rebate on tuition and fees at the end of each completed semester, as long as students maintain a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher.
It is open only to state residents and is estimated to provide an average savings of $5,090 on the cost of a four-year degree. Tuition and mandatory fees will be frozen at the rate at which participants enter the program, which will be phased in over a period of two academic years, beginning in September.
As part of the agreement, participants must complete a two-year, associate's degree at one of the state's 15 community colleges in 2-1/2 years or less and transfer to a state university to complete a bachelor's degree in no more than two years.
Additionally, participants must choose to study at least one of 24 majors offered, not including engineering and nursing due to their higher costs.
"This program was designed to decrease the cost of a college degree and accelerate on-time completion for students across the Commonwealth, creating more opportunities and helping more people get into the workforce with the skills they need," Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement.
Increased attention has been given to community colleges as more employers look to hire employees with a college education. President Barack Obama has pushed to make tuition free at community colleges across the country.
The high cost of college tuition has also emerged as an issue in the 2016 presidential race. In his bid for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont has proposed making tuition free at public colleges and universities.
The colleges will pay for cost of the initiative, said Katy Abel, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Higher Education. However, the exact price is unknown because there is no estimate for how many students will participate, she said.
About 260,000 students, including non-state residents, attend the state's 15 community colleges, nine state universities and five campuses of the University of Massachusetts, according to the state.
(Reporting by Marcus E. Howard; Editing by David Gregorio)