Conn. considers plan to cover college completion costs

Connecticut lawmakers are considering a different approach from other states to help students cover the high cost of college.

Instead of offering free community college tuition, legislators in this cash-strapped state are debating whether to create a new scholarship program that would ensure students complete their coursework and obtain a degree. It’s seen by some lawmakers as a more cost-effective way to boost graduation rates at the state’s 12 community colleges, the four regional state universities and the flagship University of Connecticut.

“If we incentivize completion, then it doesn’t cost as much, and you’re getting the degree, which is really the idea of free community college,” said Sen. Beth Bye, a co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

The panel voted last Thursday in favor of moving ahead with the concept of “free college completion.” Legislators now plan to work on the details of the bill, which proponents envision will include scholarships for low- to moderate-income students who are halfway through their coursework, in hopes of ensuring they finish college and graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree.

A 2016 report from Connecticut’s Higher Education Coordinating Council shows the three-year graduation rate for certificates and degrees at the community colleges over three years is roughly 15.5 percent, based on first-time, full-time students who started their studies in 2013. It does not take into account that one out of five of those students transferred to a four-year institution.

At the state’s four regional state universities, the six-year graduation rate is 51.5 percent. Both rates do not take into account students who started on a part-time basis or transferred to another school. Bye acknowledged the data aren’t perfect, but said they provide a broad indication that more needs to be done to ensure students earn a degree.

Helping students

State Rep. Gregory Haddad (D-Storrs), another co-chairman of the higher education committee, said he has heard from many students who worry about accumulating large amounts of college debt after they have used up grants and other resources.

“At some point, resources run dry,” he said, adding that this program would cover the financial gap after a student’s other grants are spent.

The idea for the college completion program comes from proposals released by Democratic Senate and House members in advance of the new legislative session, which opened February 7. Bye said that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are in the early stages of discussing the idea and that it’s unclear how much the program would ultimately cost. They’re awaiting an estimate from the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Rhode Island, New York, Oregon and Tennessee offer forms of free community college. It also became an issue during the 2016 presidential campaign, when independent Sen. Bernie Sanders advocated for tuition-free college.

“It’s certainly a conversation we need to start in Connecticut, especially in light of what New York and Rhode Island have done,” Haddad said.

Budget concerns

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) questioned whether this is the year to enact such a measure, when revenue estimates for the fiscal year beginning July 1 have come up nearly $283 million short. Connecticut’s budget faces projected deficits over the next several years as well.

“There are wonderful ideas out there, but back to the budget. We have a serious problem and we need to fix it,” Klarides said.

Bye is optimistic the cost might prove reasonable. Part of the proposal would require students to fill out the federal student aid application to see whether they qualify for tuition assistance.

In Connecticut, the annual full-time rate at a state community college, including tuition and fees, is $4,276 for in-state students. At the four state universities, the in-state tuition ranges from $10,225 to $10,919. That figure does not include room and board.

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