A plan to offer a free start and finish to college for state residents who meet income criteria was unveiled Thursday by Democratic lawmakers in Hartford.
Characterized as an investment the debt-ridden state can’t afford not to make, Democrats say the initiative could cost about $30 million a year.
“It is about expanding opportunities in higher education,” said state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the Legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “You have to build on your strengths.”
Bye said the plan, dubbed Free 2 Start/Free 2 Finish will lead to more students filling out federal financial aid forms, going to college, completing college and filling jobs that currently go empty.
“Free college will help attract young people to Connecticut,” she said. “This is not some crazy liberal idea … I think it has it’s thumb on a problem in Connecticut.”
There are already free college programs in New York, Tennessee, Oregon, Rhode Island and California. Massachusetts is poised to be the next.
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, who appeared with other Democratic lawmakers at a press conference Thursday, said the plan would put college in the reach of more residents and leave many of them debt free once they graduate.
Under the bill, the state aid of at least $1,000 would come after all other financial aid a full-time undergraduate student is eligible to receive, and would be good for the first two years at a community college in the state.
Annual full-time tuition now at the state’s two year colleges exceeds $4,000.
To be eligible, the student would have to be a state resident, in good academic standing and meet family income guidelines. A student coming from a family of four making $72,900 would be eligible.
“This will help literally thousands of students across the state,” said state Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, the house chair of the Higher Education Committee.
Under Free 2 Start, students would get their first two years at a community college free. The free finish program could be used to finish an associates or a bachelor’s degree at a state university. Eligible students can do both programs.
There are 49,000 community college students in the state, of whom 16,300 are full time. Another 33,000 attend the state universities, with 23,000 going full time. The University of Connecticut has another 22,500 students. It is unclear how many would qualify financially.
Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said having more residents with degrees would attract more business to the state. Some 25,000 jobs go unfilled because of a lack of employees skilled enough to fill them, according to estimates, Duff said.
Republicans were quick to react to the plan.
“Given that the State of Connecticut has a $200 million-plus deficit currently and is facing another multi-billion dollar deficit in the next-two year budget cycle, how do they propose to pay for it?,” said state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
The Legislature has consistently cut state aid to higher education to the point that the Board of Regents for Higher Education is poised to consolidate its 12 community colleges into one, largely to save money.
Bye said she saw no contradiction between that plan and Free 2 Start/Free 2 Finish.
“When you bring more resources in the door, you bring more money,” she said.
Democrats also don’t see the plan hurting private colleges in the state. The free tuition program would only apply to students attending state colleges.
The Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges disagreed.
Jennifer Widness, president of the organization that represents 16 private colleges in the state, warned of unintended consequences, particularly for smaller colleges like Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Mitchell College, the University of St. Joseph and Goodwin College.
“Our neighbors in New York have reported that many private, nonprofit institutions that enroll a majority of New Yorkers have faced enrollment declines causing employment reductions after just one year of free college in that state,” Widness said.
Several Central Connecticut State University students listening to the press conference also had questions.
“We are still waiting to hear how they will pay for it,” said Dante Solano, a Central biology major from Meriden.
“It’s a lot of money, where is it all going to come from?” added Gabriella Bierwirth, a Central Spanish education major.
Bierwirth also wondered whether students who enrolled in the program would be serious about their studies.