Free college completion program floated in Connecticut
Free college programs have sprung up in New York, Tennessee, Oregon, Rhode Island and California and now Connecticut lawmakers are looking into a similar plan to help students complete their degree.
“Connecticut has a lot of residents stuck in the pipeline,” state Sen. Beth Bye, co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education committee said. “It is a real issue. So many students don’t matriculate.”
As a result, she said skilled jobs that employers need go unfilled.
Take the financial burden away, Bye said, and more students would leave college with a degree.
The idea, which has yet to have a fiscal note attached to it, would be to offer free tuition to Connecticut residents who earn enough credits and maintain a certain grade point average so they can complete their degree.
The idea did not get a mention Wednesday during Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s final State of the State address which carried a theme of “fairness.” Education — an early focus of the Malloy administration — got barely a mention during the 40-minute speech.
The omission did not go unnoticed.
“His budget proposal is anything but fair for Connecticut’s students and public schools,” said Shelia Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
On Monday, Malloy released details of a budget proposal which would cut state education aid entirely to 33 communities and pull back on promised increases to many others.
Also absent from what traditionally is a budget address was any mention of the state’s budget crisis.
“Not a scintilla,” Pat O’Neill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Themis Klaridis, R-Derby, said. “There were a number of good ideas but not a word about how to pay for them.”
The free tuition plan announced by House and Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday, meanwhile, came with few specifics like how a state that is deep in the red would pay for it. So much so that officials from both the University of Connecticut and Connecticut State Colleges and Universities said they needed more details before they could comment.
Whether the concept would apply to just community colleges, or four-year institutions as well, has yet to be determined. Bye said research on the concept is under way. She also promised public hearings on the issue.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said she wonders if there isn’t a better approach.
“First we have to iron out K-12 and make sure all are getting the same good education. That is not happening,” Lavielle said.
Then, Lavielle supports exploring programs like one in Norwalk that allows some high school students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.
“Student don’t pay for any of it,” said Lavielle. Instead, the Norwalk Early College Academy program is partially funded by private businesses.
She’d like other districts to emulate the program and explore the possibility of partial state funding in the future.
“To me something like that is probably more worth looking at” than, Lavielle said, “make this free, that free.”
During last year’s legislative session, State Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown proposed a bill to study the feasibility of implementing a debt-free higher education program for in-state students attending public colleges.
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.
Democrats also want to invest more in the state’s technical high schools as a way to create a stronger pipeline to skilled jobs, but have yet to offer details.
State. Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford, said the effort was essential to supporting workforce development and regrowing the economy.
“We have a ways to go,” Simmons said. “Let’s keep our kids here in Connecticut.”