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January 28, 2020

Community college tuition to remain flat under new plan

Photo | Contributed Students in an honors class at Middlesex Community College in Middletown.

For the first time in decades, the cost to attend a community college in Connecticut will remain flat from this school year to the next under a plan expected to be approved this week by the Board of Regents’ budget panel.

This decision will impact those who do not qualify to attend community college for free under the state’s new Pact program. This includes those attending part-time, are trying college for a second time after dropping out, are undocumented immigrants, or grew up in another state.

It’s almost certain to become more expensive to attend the Connecticut State Universities next year, however.

Regents President Mark Ojakian is proposing increasing tuition for the colleges by $431 to $11,818 – a 3.8% increase over this school year. The increase aligns with the steady increases students at the state’s four regional state universities have paid in recent years.

During an interview with reporters, Ojakian and his budget director, Ben Barnes, said several factors contributed to them being able to recommend no tuition increase for community college students.

For one, the two-year state budget legislators approved last spring provides the community college system with $30 million in additional funding, while the free-college program lawmakers approved – and for which they separately set aside aid – is likely to result in more students enrolling. With those students come more federal Pell Grants to pay for their tuition.

Finally, the system intends to hire 60 additional college advisers to help retain more students – and their tuition or federal aid – and to encourage them to add classes so they are enrolled full-time.

These assumptions are not without risk. Although the plan relies on the state providing the college system additional revenue as promised, there are signs the preliminary $22.1 billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year already faces significant pressure before considering added funds for higher education. The current fiscal year is running a modest $59 million deficit, a little less than one-third of 1% of the General Fund.

Lamont, whose proposed revisions to the 2020-21 budget are due to legislators on Feb. 5, also must grapple with a very tight spending cap. The preliminary $22.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year falls a mere $5 million under that cap, and lawmakers have already proposed adding $2 million in spending to that plan to assist Planned Parenthood and reversing $5.3 million in cuts to nursing homes.

The plan also assumes a fairly drastic increase in enrollment and, with that influx, more tuition dollars. In recent history, enrollment in the colleges has shrunk as the state’s school-age population declines and enrollment in private colleges in the state increases. The plan also will tap into the community college’s reserves to spend $1 million for marketing to hopefully draw in more students and another $11 million to close a structural deficit.

“There’s a lot of upside if we can be successful,” said Barnes of using the reserves to grow enrollment. “Retention is the new enrollment.”

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