State Moves Closer to Free Community College

Early estimates suggest the Pledge to Advance Connecticut,” or PACT, plan will attract 1,000 additional students to Connecticut’s community colleges.

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The Connecticut Board of Regents took the next step in making community college free for full-time students Thursday by approving the “Pledge to Advance Connecticut,” or PACT plan.

Students must be Connecticut high school graduates and full-time students attending college for the first time.  They must also fill out a FAFSA and accept all federal grants.  The program is designed to cover what federal aid can’t, helping students struggling financially bridge that last-dollar gap.

For some students, that amount could be as little as $250.

“That last $250 for many of our community college students is often a deal breaker,” said Dr. Tanya Millner-Harlee, Manchester Community College’s president.

At $1.6 trillion, student debt ranks second to mortgage debt nationwide.

“College really is expensive and I know people struggle,” said Deylin Ruiz, a senior at East Hartford High School.

The cost of college and the debt students will owe when they graduate is on top of mind for many high school seniors in the middle of making big decisions about their futures.

“It is definitely something I worry about,” said Tiara Mitchell, a fellow senior at East Hartford High.  “Money is definitely something that, it plays a big factor when it comes to college.  I think about the books, I think about the food, and if you’re going to commute or not.”

The school’s supervisor of College and Career Readiness, Dr. Frank Staples, said money is almost always part of the conversation he has with students making their post-graduate plans.

“That’s usually one of the first things that comes up in terms of the affordability of college,” said Staples, who added that a quarter of students at the school don’t go on to college.  He expects that stat to rise thanks to PACT.

Enrollment has gone down at 10 of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges as the high price of higher education has forced students to enter the workforce or leave the state.  Early estimates suggest the PACT program will attract 1,000 additional students to Connecticut’s community colleges.

“We’re making a promise here today and in the future to provide free community college to whoever wants to go to college,” said Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

“It sounds like a really good idea and it sounds really helpful,” said Deylin Ruiz, East Hartford High School senior.

“It will cover what financial aid and what institutional aid does not cover,” Millner-Harlee explained.

Lawmakers plan to pay for the initial $6.5 million investment with funds from ILotto, a yet-to-be-launched program to purchase lottery tickets on your cell phone.  The cost of the program beyond that is unknown.

“This is a new thing for the state of Connecticut so we don’t know exactly how many students will knock on the door the first year,” said Rep. Gregg Haddad, (D -Mansfield).

The tuition-free, fee-free program that was passed as part of the budget last spring, calls for the governor to find another funding source if necessary.

“It’s true that nothing is free.  This requires an investment by the state,” said Sen. Will Haskel, (D - New Canaan).

Haskel, general assembly’s youngest member, said this investment will not only pay off for students but Connecticut’s workforce. 

“Tuition costs will not be the thing that holds them back from earning a degree,” he added.

Lawmakers are expected to firm up a funding source for the program during the next legislative session.

Students can apply now for the fall semester. If they would like to receive priority consideration for PACT awards, they need to apply and register before July 15.

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