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Proponents of ‘free college’ say it would ease, not strain state finances

Proponents of ‘free college’ say it would ease, not strain state finances

A proposal for free college is nowhere to be found in the governor’s budget bill or in the budget under discussion in the General Assembly,  but proponents of the measure have not given up. They say new numbers showing the possibility of a dramatic surge in enrollment and large revenues make the plan too promising to abandon.

“Ordinarily I would say the mountain is getting too steep,” said Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chairman of the legislature’s higher education committee. “But a fiscal note that came out [recently] actually looks very encouraging.”

Those numbers show that if a free or debt-free two years of community college is offered to all recent high school graduates who would be first-time, full-time students — regardless of income — enrollment could surge anywhere from 10 percent to 45 percent over current numbers.

If the higher estimate is reached, the program — if started in the fall of 2020 — would cost $8.9 million in Fiscal Year 2022, but would bring in an estimated $10.7 million that year.

Their revised approach would cover community college tuition costs for any recent graduate — regardless of income — who aren’t already covered by federal Pell grants, institutional aid, or other government or private grants. For students who are Pell-eligible and thus have all of their tuition costs covered, a minimum annual grant of $500 would be provided to cover costs for books, transportation, food and child care.

“If we have income limits, we’re sort of mitigating the size of the wave of new students because it just sounds less exciting,” Haddad said. “It’s not a true free college program if you have an income limit.”

Haddad said the program would address the state’s lagging enrollment problems at the colleges which is contributing to the system’s fiscal distress. With more students enrolling, the revenue gained mainly in federal Pell grant funds would range from an estimated $2.3 million to $4.9 million.

But in a program with no family income limit, Haddad said, the Office of Fiscal Analysis has estimated the numbers on additional enrollment of full time students range from 10 percent to as high as 45 percent.

As part of its calculations, the Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that the loss in revenue at the state universities — the result of students choosing the free community colleges for their first two years — would be about $2.8 million. If subtracted from the revenues, that would leave the program with a $1 million price tag, though proponents note that any loss may be offset by a growing number of community college graduates going on to the state universities.

“This has the potential to increase the number of community college students at a reasonable cost,” Haskell said.

Morley Winograd, president of the national Campaign for Free College Tuition, said there are 12 states that offer a free college program. “States really can’t afford not to do it,” he said, “because you use up the capacity of your community colleges that are currently facing declining enrollment and you make an investment in the state’s future. So it’s a double-barreled benefit.”

Rhode Island’s track record

Lawmakers looked at what happened in Rhode Island as evidence of the strength of this plan for Connecticut. In 2017, Rhode Island started a free community college plan similar to the one being considered here. In the first year, the state reported a 43 percent increase in enrollment.

If that increase is calculated over two years — from 2016 to 2018 — the increase is 113 percent.

Critics of free college plans say they benefit the middle and upper middle classes, but provide no additional benefits to community college students who are low-income and have their tuition costs covered by Pell grants.

But Amy Kempe, spokesman for the Community College of Rhode Island, said that over the past two years of the Promise Program, the number of low-income, first time, full-time students has gone up 143 percent, while the number of students of color has gone up 164 percent.

“We are closing the equity gap,” Kempe said. 

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State College and Universities systems, which oversees the state’s 12 colleges and four state universities, has noted that almost 60 percent of community college students are already attending for free, covered mainly by federal Pell grants.

Ben Barnes, the chief financial officer for the CSCU system, said he has concerns about whether the estimated surge in enrollment will actually materialize at hoped-for levels.

With an expected shortfall of $30 million next year and a reserve fund of less than $40 million, Barnes said, “In our current circumstances, for us to take a gamble … The risk of us not getting that revenue in the short run is very difficult for us to accept, given that we are likely to to be drawing down on our reserves just simply to run our current organization and we don’t have enough reserves to draw down on them for more than a year or two at this stage.”

Legislators have proposed providing the community colleges with additional funding beyond the governor’s proposal to help cover the burgeoning cost of fringe benefits: $8.2 million for FY 2020 and $10.35 million for FY 2021.

Ojakian has said additional funding is “an important step forward,” but even with the increase, “our institutions — particularly the community colleges — will continue to face a significant shortfall that will need to be closed by tapping into reserve funds.”

Haddad said he doesn’t see a free college plan as a gamble. “I think [Barnes] should be concerned about how we design the program to make sure we realize the enrollment that we think we could realize.”

“I don’t think free college alone will solve their problems,” Haddad said, “and I don’t think additional public dollars will solve their problem. I think we need to do a combination of both.”

This story originally appeared on the website of The Connecticut Mirror,