Massachusetts paves the way for community colleges to open dorms

Community colleges have greatly evolved in the past two decades, adopting many hallmarks of traditional colleges but, often, at a much lower price. Many schools now offer a wide variety of clubs, sports and study abroad programs. Their campuses feature coffee shops, recreation complexes and posh lounges, spaces that encourage students to hang out instead of hopping back in their cars or catching the bus after class.

The next frontier is housing, and a growing number of community colleges in a number of states have opened dorms.

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved a policy change on Tuesday that allows the state’s 15 community colleges to propose building residence halls, lifting a ban on such housing that has been in place since 1980, according to a statement from the board. The board believes that this makes Massachusetts the 40th state to permit dorm-building on community college campuses.

At colleges of all sorts, students who live in on-campus housing are more likely to get involved with out-of-class activities, build friendships with their classmates, interact with faculty members and remain enrolled. A number of traditional colleges have expanded their housing options in recent years, encouraging and sometimes requiring students to live on-campus for at least a year or two.

Community college attendance has steadily grown in recent years, especially as the economy pushes some families to send their children to community college for two years before transferring to a more-expensive four-year school. But at the same time, fewer than half of students who started community college with the goal of earning a degree or a certification did so within six years. The rates are even worse for Hispanic, black, Native-American and low-income students, according to a 2012 report by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Massachusetts officials said in a statement that housing at community colleges could help increase retention and graduation rates. Just over 16 percent of students who enroll at two-year public colleges in Massachusetts graduate within three years, which is below the national average of about 20 percent, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Completion Web site. Using 2010 data, the state ranked No. 32 in the country on this measure.

So far, only one Massachusetts community college has expressed interest in building housing: Mount Wachusett Community College, located in Gardner.

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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