Mitt Romney’s ‘tuition-free ride’ covers only a fraction of college costs, originally favored white, suburban students

Mitt Romney spoke with pride during Monday’s presidential debate about a scholarship program that offers high-achieving Bay State students “a four-year, tuition-free ride at any Massachusetts public institution of higher learning,” but the awards cover only a fraction of students’ total costs and most recipients turn them down.

And while Romney said the scholarships go to students who rank in the top quarter of their high school classes, his original proposal would have awarded scholarships to students who scored in the top 25 percent statewide on the MCAS—a criterion that favored white, suburban students.

President Obama challenged Romney’s claim to be responsible for the scholarships, saying “that happened before you came into office.” In fact, the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship was Romney’s idea. He unveiled the program during his State of the State address in January 2004, and the first awards went to high school graduates in 2005.

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Though Romney undoubtedly deserves the credit for introducing the scholarship program, the awards are not as generous as the phrase “tuition-free ride” suggests.

In-state undergraduate tuition at UMass Amherst, the state’s flagship public university, is only $1,714 this year—unchanged since the Adams scholarships were first given—but the total cost of attendance is $23,167. The Adams scholarship covers just 7 percent of total costs.

A frugal student who enrolled at a less expensive school, like Worcester State University, and who commuted from home to save on room and board would still be responsible for 88 percent of total costs. The Adams scholarship would pay for tuition, $970, but not for $7,187 in fees.

Seventy-five percent of Adams scholarship recipients turn down the awards, according to the Executive Office of Education.

In 2004, the Democrat-controlled state legislature rejected Romney’s version of the scholarship program, which he included in his budget proposal for the following fiscal year. But Romney circumvented lawmakers by winning passage by the state Board of Higher Education.

The board originally accepted Romney’s requirement that scholarship winners rank among the top quarter of statewide scorers on the MCAS. A Globe analysis at the time showed that in an affluent district, like Dover-Sherborn, two-thirds of all graduates would earn Adams scholarships while even the valedictorian at Hyde Park High School would not.

“You could say, ‘Boy, the rich people are all going to get this,’ ” Romney told the Globe at the time. “The rich people don’t take advantage of it. The question is, who uses it? High-income families in Concord and Carlisle and Weston do not go to public institutions of higher learning.”

Anticipating that many students would forgo the scholarships, Romney sought enough money in his original budget request to cover only 40 percent of eligible students.

Seven months after adopting Romney’s plan, the Board of Higher Education amended it to include students whose scores placed them among the top 25 percent in their own districts. Romney agreed to the change but stipulated that scholarship recipients earn an “advanced” score on at least one section of the MCAS and “proficient” scores on all others.