Magno Garcia has enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College three times since graduating from high school in Chelsea 16 years ago.

To pay for it, he worked part time as a retail associate and an air conditioning technician, collectively putting in 70-hour weeks in the summer. Garcia said he was determined to avoid student loan debt, but he found that he had little time to focus on his classes while juggling two jobs. And the first two times he enrolled, his money and his energy ran out.

“I wasn't really motivated,” Garcia said. “It was like the worst idea because I paid everything out of pocket.”

After 16 years, he's back in college, part of an uptick in community college enrollment in Massachusetts. State officials said programs to make community college free for anyone age 25 and older have led to the first enrollment jump at the state's public colleges in nine years. While enrollment in public four-year colleges has slowed, enrollment in Massachusetts' 15 community colleges rose by 8% on average last year.

That's, in part, why some political leaders, including Gov. Maura Healey, said they now want to expand free community college to all state residents regardless of age.

“Community colleges are the ticket to economic mobility,” Healey said in August at Bunker Hill as she rolled out the plan for adults, which she called a barrier breaker.

Despite the one-year overall enrollment increase, community colleges in Massachusetts admitted 25% fewer students in the fall of 2023 than before the pandemic and nearly 40% fewer than a decade ago.

Surveys show the pandemic led community college students to cancel their college plans at more than twice the rate of four-year college students. COVID-19, affordability and financial aid problems were the top reasons cited.

“It's good news that there's been some stabilization, but overall enrollment’s down,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Columbia Teachers College. “Community college enrollment was hit hardest during COVID, and it had been dropping for a decade before that.”

Jenkins said offering college for free helps enrollment rebound at first, but two-year schools need to improve their product if they want lasting gains.

“[Community colleges] are going to have to make sure they're offering programs that enable students with short-term training to get a good job, not just into another low-wage job,” Jenkins said. “Community colleges, I love them, but they don’t serve adult students well. They're going to have to move toward more 24/7 advising. They're going to have to schedule the courses when students need them — not Tuesday to Thursday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. when the professors want to teach.”

Massachusetts isn’t the only state that hopes to increase access to community college by removing the barrier of tuition. The popularity of free community college has grown nationwide, with about two-thirds of states now offering some form of it. In Tennessee, community college has been free for a decade.

Research out of Tennessee shows free tuition increased accessibility. After the TennesseeReconnect program launched in 2018, expanding scholarships to adults, enrollment spiked 5% with thousands of low-income students taking up the offer in the first year. Nearly 60% of them returned for the next academic year.

However, only one in five adults who re-enrolled in community college there graduated after three years.

Sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” said free college doesn't solve every problem around college affordability.

“It's very clear that it's targeted to the people who most need college to be affordable. Those are the people who right now are not going at all,” she said.

But the same problems that have traditionally prevented community college students from graduating at higher rates — like finding enough time to go to school while working — also persisted.

Mirroring the rest of the country, Tennessee's overall community college enrollment is down — 16% below pre-pandemic levels this academic year.

“It boosts enrollment at first, but those people don’t necessarily stay in,” said Jennifer Freeman, a senior director at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit.

To retain students, Freeman said students still need better support systems, schedule flexibility and tailored course offerings that help students graduate and achieve their career goals. Otherwise, she said, students will "go back to the same college format structure that didn't work for them in the first place."

Even without changes, Goldrick-Rab said making community college free broadens access and benefits society. She said the current financial aid system, which requires filling out complicated forms and formulas to calculate how much college will cost, falls short for too many students.

“Things that knock out a given cost like tuition are more promising than things that are predicated on jumping through a bunch of hoops,” she said.

Goldrick-Rab said it's well known that students who are working and attending community college have lower completion rates. But making community college free widens the pool of candidates and changes who is considering college for the first time, or even the second or third time.

Rebecca Beaucher is one of those students.

At 45, Beaucher returned to college last fall thanks to Massachusetts' new free program.

Beaucher enrolled 20 years ago but left college because working full-time as an IT analyst and parenting spread her too thin. Going back wasn't easy either.

“I was intimidated,” she said. “It had been so long since I had been in a class environment.”

Beaucher said the MassReconnect program was the enticement she needed to re-enroll at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. She recalled when she heard the news the program passed in the state’s budget.

“My heart just dropped and I immediately burst into tears and I sent a text to my husband like, 'This is it. Game on. I'm finally getting my degree,'” Beaucher said.

This year, Beaucher is taking business classes online. She said her goal is to earn her associate's degree and eventually her doctorate.

"On my headstone, I want it to say 'Dr. Rebecca Beaucher,'" she said. "I understand that I'm 45 and I may get that when I'm 90, and I am absolutely OK with this."

Despite several surveys indicating that nearly 80% of community college students aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree, a new study foundonly about one-third transfer to a four-year institution and 16% who start at a community college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. These rates are even lower for low-income, male, Black and Latino students.

But for Magno Garcia, a first generation college student whose parents are from El Salvador, the new free program for adults in Massachusetts has renewed his hope of a degree.

"Third time's a charm," he said, adding that he found a new support network on Bunker Hill’s campus through a program designed for men of color.

He's switched his major from accounting to psychology, which is more in line with his interests. And now he plans to transfer to Boston College in the fall and pursue a bachelor's degree. A degree will help him achieve a new goal: to work in a school as a teacher or school counselor.