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March 25, 2019

Competitive concerns drive debate over free college, but financial restraints could limit impact

Photo | Katie G. Krajcik Sage Maier is wrapping up her associate degree at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, where she is also student government president. Maier said finances are often the single biggest concern for her fellow students.
HBJ Photo | Lou Russo, Lou Russo Photography CSCU President Mark Ojakian is slated to retire.
HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Gov. Ned Lamont at a MetroHartford Alliance event earlier this year.


Higher Ed. Inc.

Despite budget deficits, the push for free community college is gaining momentum in Connecticut, as policymakers seek to boost the state's economic competitiveness and provide more opportunities for students from modest backgrounds.

Some, including Gov. Ned Lamont, have said the state likely can't afford it, but amid the usual hemming and hawing over money, Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven) recently reminded lawmakers that some competing blue states in the college-centric Northeast are already eating Connecticut's lunch when it comes to paying students' college tuition and fees.

“We are in a marketplace where Connecticut cannot afford to fall behind,” the Senate president pro tem told members of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee at a Feb. 28 hearing. “I think it's a matter of self-preservation for us to begin to make this kind of investment.”

Some Connecticut lawmakers are looking to follow the lead of a dozen other states that already offer some form of free college, but it's uncertain how much it would cost.

The issue is complicated and important as Connecticut increasingly relies on community colleges to help fill jobs gaps in a range of key industries, including advanced manufacturing and health care.

Surprisingly, 44 percent of community-college students in the state — or 22,000 pupils — already go to school for free, thanks mainly to federal aid, which is targeted at low-income residents.

However, advocates argue more people deserve help, especially as students, even at two-year schools, are increasingly shackled by college loan debt.

Sen. President Pro Tem Martin Looney

Over the past seven years, federal borrowing by students at Connecticut's 12 community colleges has grown by nearly 50 percent, with median debt per student ranging between $5,000 and $6,000 at half of those schools, according to data provided by the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (CSCU) system, which oversees the community colleges, four regional universities and an online university.

Those amounts pale in comparison to the $38,500 average debt burden carried by students who attend four-year colleges in Connecticut, but community college pupils tend to come from poorer backgrounds with a smaller financial backstop from family members. Graduation rates are also lower at community colleges, meaning a higher number of students leave without their degree, though they must still make loan payments.

Sage Maier, student government president at Tunxis Community College in Farmington and the sole student member on the Board of Regents for Higher Education, CSCU's overseer, said she supports the concept of more state aid for students, but she also understands questions about potential costs.

She said financial concerns are the “end all, be all of why” many students drop out of community college before they graduate.

“That is the biggest struggle for everyone,” said Maier, who expects to graduate this spring with an associate degree in human services.

Aid landscape

Already, significant money is spent to help Connecticut residents afford the ever-increasing costs of higher education.

The largest portion of non-loan student aid comes from Pell Grants, a federal subsidy targeted at lower-income students. This year, Pell grants for Connecticut community-college students totaled $77 million, according to CSCU.

The second-biggest support is institutional aid — community colleges set aside 15 percent of their tuition revenue for that purpose. Community-college students also get a share of Connecticut's Roberta Willis Scholarship, a need- and merit-based program that doled out $9.4 million to two-year students this school year.

Pell and other aid cover all tuition and fees for about 22,000 community college students here (though the average student must still pay thousands of dollars more for housing and other necessities).

Free-college advocates argue that using more state dollars to help cover tuition and fees for a greater number of students could boost the number of skilled workers unleashed into an economy that increasingly needs them.

The state Department of Labor estimated last year that 56 percent of Connecticut's job growth through 2026 will be in positions that require more education than a high school diploma.

Of that estimate, 13 percent will require “middle-skills” education, like an associate degree from a community college or other post-high school training.

Connecticut proposals

A handful of bills have emerged this legislative session that would take aim in varying ways at the financial burdens of higher education.

One would provide tax incentives to employers that help employees repay student loans, another would allow graduates to make a down payment on a house using a portion of their state income tax liability, while a third calls for an amendment to the state constitution to specify that Connecticut residents are entitled to two free years of higher education.

Meanwhile, a proposal that has advanced out of the higher-ed committee this month, would see Connecticut take a similar approach to Rhode Island: Steer an additional pot of money to middle class community-college students who currently may have their tuition and fees only partially subsidized, or not at all.

However, Senate Bill 273 envisions strict eligibility rules, which could curtail the number of students who'd be able to tap the aid. For example, only recent high-school graduates who enroll full time could participate. That's significant because two-thirds of the state's 50,000 or so community-college students attend part time, often because they must work to cover living expenses and family obligations during their studies.

For students who are able to get into the program, academic performance standards, like maintaining a 2.5 GPA, could make it difficult for them to hang onto the aid long enough to complete their degree.

There's not yet any official estimate as to how much S.B. 273 would cost, but the Ocean State, which has approximately one-third the number of community-college students as Connecticut, spent about $3 million for the first year of its similarly structured Rhode Island Promise program.

Based on that, and barring other variables that could influence costs, Connecticut could potentially see a $9 million price tag in the first year.

In RI, NY, early results are mixed

Rhode Island and another state that offers a tuition-free program, New York, have both reported enrollment boosts from their investments, but there's early evidence that eligibility restrictions and academic requirements have limited how many students those states have been able to help so far.

According to data published by the four-campus Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), full-time enrollment of students younger than 20 years old grew by 58 percent in 2017 and 2018, the first two years of the Rhode Island Promise program.

A total of 984 students qualified for the program in 2017, and 62 percent of them remained enrolled to start the 2018 school year, according to CCRI. However, news website GoLocalProv published an internal CCRI presentation last year that called Rhode Island Promise's 2.5 minimum GPA and full-time course load requirements (the same types of restrictions proposed in Connecticut) a “barrier to advancement” for the majority of students.

While New York's Excelsior Scholarship has boosted enrollment since its 2017 launch, a report last year by the nonprofit Center for an Urban Future found benefiting students only make up about 3.2 percent of public university undergraduates in the state, and that nearly two-thirds of students who applied for the scholarship were rejected due to various program restrictions.

Uniquely, New York also requires students to reside in the state after college for two or four years. If a student moves away, the state converts the Excelsior aid to a zero-interest loan.

Connecticut's proposed program has no such repayment provision.

Gennaro DeAngelis, dean of strategic enrollment management at Tunxis Community College, said it's difficult to project how much a free-tuition program would grow student enrollment.

His best guess is a small increase, but it would depend on the design and how well the state markets the program.

“Our internal data analysis suggests that tuition discounting has very little impact on students above a certain income threshold,” DeAngelis said.

Bad timing?

Unfortunately for free-college advocates, momentum for such a program is ramping up at a time when the CSCU system is ailing financially, with a $57 million deficit projected next year, assuming flat state funding and no tuition increases. (CSCU is already weighing a tuition hike at its four-year schools.)

CSCU has seen its state appropriations fall 19 percent since 2015, a challenge that's been exacerbated by an accompanying drop in enrollment, further shrinking its revenue.

Meanwhile, as some push for free tuition, the state faces a $3.7 billion deficit of its own in the coming two fiscal years.

In a speech last month, Gov. Lamont acknowledged the challenges college students face in repaying their loans — bankruptcy-proof obligations that can stunt recent graduates' ability to purchase a home, invest in a business, or simply make ends meet.

“Kids are graduating with enormous student loans, which they can hardly dig their way out from under,” Lamont said. “They can't afford to buy a house because they've got to pay off the loans first. Everybody says: 'Well Ned, why don't you [offer] free community college?' Well, we're a little short of dough in the state, so I can't quite do that.”

The CSCU system is left with few options, most of them unpalatable, for attempting to address its structural deficit. Tuition hikes and campus closures are possible avenues, while another is an ongoing (and controversial) effort by CSCU President Mark E. Ojakian and the Board of Regents to consolidate community colleges into a single institution and shrink the number of administrators overseeing it.

Given the state's financial realities, Ojakian said he's forced to walk a fine line in the free-college debate.

Community colleges have plenty of need for more funding as it is, he said, so any additional state investment may be better used to improve on-campus student supports, such as financial and academic advisors. But he also firmly believes the state should aspire to make college free.

“Debt-free college is a worthy concept,” Ojakian said. “I am a big believer that affordability sometimes keeps students out of college, and many times, keeps them from completing [college].”

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