Commissioner Ortega’s Fall 2023 Update: Financial Aid Expansion, Tuition Equity and New Senior Team Members

December 11, 2023

This fall semester marks a year since I had the honor of joining the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) as commissioner. This fall also commemorates the one-year anniversary of when voters went to the polls and supported the Fair Share Amendment, which brought historic levels of funding to higher education in the Commonwealth. Thanks to the Healey-Driscoll Administration, voters, legislators, advocates, and many students who have raised their voices, the past 12 months have accelerated our efforts toward truly affordable, high-quality postsecondary opportunity for all learners in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

To highlight our work and the efforts made by our team at DHE, I have included a few highlights below.

Historic Levels of Financial Aid and Access

MassReconnect and MASSGrant Plus Expansion
In August, the Healey-Driscoll Administration announced MassReconnect, making community college free for students without degrees who are 25 or older, regardless of their income levels. We are proud to have worked with Massachusetts’ 15 public community colleges to ensure the smooth implementation of this policy so that students can take advantage of it immediately and seamlessly.

In November, Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll, along with DHE and the Executive Office of Education (EOE), announced a $62 million financial aid investment that brings Massachusetts to 12th in the nation for student aid – up from 26th. The new program, MASSGrant Plus Expansion, makes all Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities tuition and fee free for Pell Grant-eligible students and provides them with allowances for books and supplies, and it reduces costs for middle-income students. Some 25,000 students will benefit during the 2023-2024 academic year.

Prior to this year, the Board of Higher Education (BHE) completed a comprehensive study of how public higher education is financed in the Commonwealth. The Strategic Higher Education Financing (SHEF) report identified the need for increased financial aid as a top priority. DHE and BHE are grateful that a significant portion of Fair Share funds has been designated to this pressing need. Learn more about the MassGrant Plus Expansion on DHE’s website.

Tuition Equity for Massachusetts Students
Recently enacted state law has made it easier and more equitable for all Massachusetts high school graduates and others to access in-state tuition rates at our public colleges and universities, as well as state financial aid programming. Called the “Tuition Equity,” this new law allows all students who have attended high school in the Commonwealth for at least three years, obtained a high school diploma or its equivalent in Massachusetts, and met certain other documentation requirements, to access in-state tuition rates and be eligible for state financial aid.

While all students across the Commonwealth will benefit from this expanded, streamlined way to access affordable higher education, the Tuition Equity law notably carves a pathway to in-state tuition rates and state financial aid for certain non-U.S. citizen high school students, namely undocumented students. DHE is partnering with campuses and other stakeholders to build awareness of this new pathway, and we continue to develop and roll out guidance and tools to help implement the new law. Learn more about tuition equity on DHE’s website.

New Senior Team Members

When I came to Massachusetts shortly before the Fair Share Amendment passed, I knew that record levels of higher education attainment overall and for all subpopulations were possible in the Commonwealth. I also knew that meeting this moment would require a strong senior team.

In March of 2023, DHE announced the hiring of Senior Deputy Commissioner and Special Advisor José Luis Santos. Below are three senior team members who joined DHE in September 2023. I am incredibly excited to have an exceptionally strong executive team with three new professionals who bring significant experience and proven success in their respective areas.

Deputy Commissioner for Policy Michael Dannenberg
Michael joins DHE as its inaugural Deputy Commissioner for Policy. He most recently served as a Senior Fellow with the College Promise Campaign in Washington, DC. A long-time senior education advisor, he has served as a senior aide under the Obama Administration’s U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). Michael has also run education budget and policy programs at various advocacy groups and think tanks, including Education Trust and the New America Foundation. He’s a first-generation college graduate with degrees from Boston University, Stanford University, and Yale Law School.

Deputy Commissioner of Academic Affairs and Student Success Dr. Richard (Rick) Riccardi
Rick previously served Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. In that role, Rick led the development of a reverse transfer initiative and student-friendly system academic policy and spearheaded the creation of academic sharing procedures and standards, leveraging technology to automate course sharing, collaborative programs, and joint degrees. Before that, at Rider University, he served as Senior Associate Provost and Dean of Libraries, as well as the Interim Chief Information Officer. Rick began his career in the Connecticut State University System, where he spent more than 27 years in both the system office focusing on student information systems, graduate and continuing education, institutional effectiveness, and enrollment management.

Deputy Commissioner of Administration, Finance, and Operations Matthew Cole
Matthew most recently served as Deputy Commissioner of Administration and Finance for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS). At DYS, Matthew saw firsthand the transformative power of public colleges and universities in creating opportunities for some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable populations. Prior to DYS, Cole served in several private and public higher education finance roles including the Massachusetts State College Building Authority and the Executive Office for Administration and Finance (A&F), where he collaborated with DHE as an A&F fiscal policy analyst.

The Path to Upward Socio-economic Mobility

Massachusetts should be a Commonwealth in which any student with the talent, desire, and drive can attend college, succeed as a student, graduate, and launch a rewarding career. This year’s historic financial aid expansion brings us much closer to achieving this vision. With the right supports to ensure student success throughout and after college, Massachusetts can and should lead the nation as a place where college is an accessible path to upward socio-economic mobility. I look forward to continuing to partner with DHE colleagues and partners in the Commonwealth in the year ahead. Our work and accomplishments are just getting started.