Community colleges in Massachusetts would be free to all students within 10 years under a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick.
The plan would make Massachusetts the only state with no-cost community college. California's system was free until 1984.
The plan is part of a broader 10-year proposal Patrick, a Democrat, unveiled Friday in a commencement address at the University of Massachusetts Boston. It calls for universal pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and extending the school day and school year.
Every student's education would extend two years beyond high school, either through vocational training or college.
"There's no other state that has universal free tuition," said Jim Hermes, a senior legislative associate with the American Association of Community Colleges. "It would be a very significant move, given the needs of the workforce."
Patrick said problems in the state's system included gaps in minority achievement and students who were ill-prepared for college and the workforce. The state has more than 20,000 unfilled jobs requiring applicants with at least an associate's degree.
"For centuries, we have been a leader in education because our forebears appreciated that education was about advancing civilization and securing our future," Patrick said, adding: "If we rest on our laurels today, if we fail to take account of the changes upon us in the state and in the world, then catastrophe will befall us. And at unspeakable cost."
Patrick said he would appoint a committee of business, education, political and community leaders to figure out how to carry out his proposals and how much they would cost. Some analysts put the cost of all the education changes at $1 billion a year, and there is skepticism about whether and how the state could afford such change. But aides to Patrick said cost estimates were meaningless before details were worked out. Most of the proposed changes would require legislative approval.
Tuition and fees at the state's 15 community colleges cost an estimated $56 million to $70 million a year, said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan economic research group. Jan Motta, executive director of Massachusetts Community Colleges, said the average student paid slightly more than $3,000 a year, nearly $1,000 more than the national average.
Motta said that as welcome as free tuition would be, especially for a community college system long treated as subordinate to Massachusetts' better-known private and state colleges, such a change would require other measures.
"We have to be looking at how do we accommodate the students and where is the classroom space and the faculty," she said.
Kay M. McClenney, director of the annual Community College Survey of Student Engagement, based at the University of Texas at Austin, said the proposal raised other questions, too.
"Tuition and fees come nowhere close to addressing the cost of college, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, particularly for students from places like California and Massachusetts where the cost of living is so high and students are often holding at least one and sometimes two or three jobs," McClenney said. "Would that cause me to say it's a bad idea? No."
But, she suggested it might make sense to provide more assistance to poorer students and charge modest fees for those who can afford it.
"Should we be making community college free for everyone," she said, "or should we be making community college free for those who most need it?"