Natalie Higgins ’09 firmly believes that obtaining a college education is a right, not a privilege. The first person in her family to attend college, Higgins was a bright, engaging student who volunteered through service programs during both high school and college. She is now the executive director of PHENOM, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing state funding for higher education; making it more affordable and accessible to students.

During her time at UMass, Higgins met few first-generation college students. This concerned her because it seemed that some potential students were getting shut out of higher education. Today, she acts to make sure that a college education remains in reach for more would-be students.

“My interest in access to public higher education really started at UMass; at least that is when I learned to verbalize it,” recalls Higgins.

While at UMass, she participated in the alternative spring break and related honors course offered by Grassroots Community Organizing (GCO) at the Commonwealth Honors College. The program focuses on solutions to poverty and political disenfranchisement. “This class honestly changed everything for me,” she said, describing her first experience learning about systems of oppression.

Higgins stayed involved in GCO in various capacities, including co-facilitating an alumni class that featured work with Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, MA. She also worked with the Everywoman's Center (now the Center for Women and Community) as a rape crisis counselor and ran a legislative advocacy campaign for the passage of the 258E Harassment Prevention Order, which protects victims of criminal harassment, stalking or sexual assault, regardless of their relationship with the perpetrator.

After UMass, Higgins attained a law degree at Northeastern University in 2014 and then went on to lead PHENOM. The group, which has stoked the political fires of education reform in Massachusetts since 2007, is looking to sharpen its focus on urging the state toward free higher education. Higgins jumped at the opportunity to be part of this profound cause.

Recognizing that community colleges, state colleges and the University of Massachusetts system all have students, faculty and staffs with very different needs and expectations, PHENOM became the first organization to bring representatives from these populations together at the statehouse to present the value of accessible and affordable college education for everyone.

“When we are all advocating for the same goal, we become very powerful,” Higgins said. “Other states and communities are making free public higher education a reality—now it’s our turn.”

When it began in 2007, PHENOM had volunteer-led chapters on the campus of every public institution in Massachusetts. Campus chapters generally consist of a mixture of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members depending on the campus and its surrounding community. The UMass Amherst chapter was last active in 2010, but Higgins would like to see it re-activated this fall to help all schools gain an amplified voice in front of legislators.

Personal stories are also a very powerful tool for this cause. Everyone’s individual experience—why they chose a particular public institution, how they paid for it, how they deal with school-related debt—affects how they see the value of education. Bringing these stories before legislators is a major goal of PHENOM.

“Though it will be hard to get there . . . free higher education should be available,” Higgins said. Now PHENOM and its allies across the public higher education system in Massachusetts just need to convince Beacon Hill.

Interested in learning more or getting involved with PHENOM? Contact Natalie Higgins at