FREE Public College — Stop the Debt!

By – Jen Mishory, Senior Fellow,  The Century Foundation


Like in New Jersey, it is expensive to pay full freight at a community college in Connecticut. The state has increased their tuition and fees at community colleges by approximately 30 percent since the Great Recession to about $4,300 per year, and the average total aid award (including state and federal aid) covers about half that cost. Connecticut’s “Free to Start, Free to Finish” proposal, backed by Senator Beth Bye (D) and Representative Greg Haddad (D), provides recent high school graduates with free tuition if they enroll full-time and have incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about $73,000 for a family of four). It also provides students who meet that same income requirement and have completed the first half of their degree with free tuition to finish their degrees at two- or four-year institutions—financial support that may come too late for many students, given that about 20 percent of first-time, first-year students at public four-year colleges do not return in their second year.

The proposal does not appear to have a GPA requirement, and it is unclear whether the program would be limited to recent high school graduates. Finally, like the Oregon Promise, the proposal is structured as a last-dollar program but includes a “middle-dollar” provision: even if a student has their tuition costs covered by Pell or other aid, they still receive $1,000 to help cover other costs of attendance like books or rent.

The Connecticut proposal is a positive first step, and seems to avoid many of the unnecessary or counterproductive restrictions in other states. However, by limiting eligibility to full-time students, the program would not reach most community college students and would miss many of the students who most need the help: Connecticut community colleges serve twice as many part-time students as they do full-time students.

It is unclear whether either of these proposals, Connecticut’s or New Jersey’s, will move forward any time soon. Connecticut is in the middle of filling a holein their biennial budget and state policymakers have shown little appetite for serious new investments this year. The New Jersey program may be more likely to gain steam, although the governor’s budget package does face hurdles. Regardless, as these debates get off the ground, policymakers should center these proposals as first steps toward a broader higher education affordability plan in the state—one that ultimately reaches all students with financial need and incorporates the Promise program as a building block toward systemwide debt-free pathways for students.

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