Manchester Community College Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror
Norwalk Community College
Norwalk Community College The CT Mirror

Washington – Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he’d participate in President Obama’s plan to provide free tuition to community college students, but he would find it tough to fund the program.

Tight budgets and the state’s cap on spending are the problem.

The America’s College Promise plan would pay for two years of community college for full- or half-time students who maintain a 2.5 grade point average (about a C+) and are in good standing.

“Too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need,” Obama said in pitching his plan in the State of the Union address last week. “It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.”

There are about 54,000 students in Connecticut’s 12 community colleges. Many could qualify for the program, based on the criteria the president put forward.

If all states participate, the White House has estimated that 9 million students could benefit under the plan, which would provide each student with about $3,800 in tuition per year. That is about the average yearly tuition at a Connecticut community college.

Congress has not drafted any legislation yet, so many details of the plan are not known.

But the president has proposed that states share in the cost of the program, with the federal government picking up 75 percent and the state the remaining 25 percent.

That could be a problem for Connecticut, which is struggling to balance its budget.

“We might have to pay for it by reducing funding for other things,” said Michael Kozlowski, director for public affairs and marketing for the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education.

A larger problem is that the new initiative could be set up so that the states would pay the full cost of tuition for eligible students and then be reimbursed by the federal government for 75 percent of that cost later, Kozlowski said.

That means Connecticut would have to appropriate 100 percent of what the state believes the program would cost in a year. Such an appropriation would count against the state’ s spending cap, Kozlowski said, which could affect the amount of money the state appropriates for other purposes.

As part of a tax deal, the constitution was amended in 1992 to establish a cap on state spending. Its purpose is to keep most state spending increases in line with the annual growth in personal income or inflation. But the cap makes no exception for the inclusion of a new federal program like the community college proposal — even though the federal government would pick up the lion’s share of the cost.

Benjamin Barnes, secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, said, “Federal funds to pay for community college education might or might not have an impact on the spending cap,” depending on how Congress drafts the legislation. For instance, Barnes said, implementing legislation could arrange for the funds to “pass through” the state to the individual schools, so the money would not have to be appropriated.

But Kozlowski said America’s College Promise would probably be a reimbursement plan that would require appropriations.

“Everybody thinks it’s a great idea,” he said of the president’s plan. “But the question is, can we afford it?”

That may be a question Connecticut never has to answer. Although the proposal has support among Democratic members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, House and Senate Republicans consider it dead on arrival, mostly because of its estimated cost — about $60 billion over 10 years.

“College is becoming less and less affordable and student debt is continuing to climb,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. “According to the College Board, tuition and fees at two-year public colleges are now two-and-a-half times what they were 30 years ago, after accounting for inflation.”

Even supporters in theory, like Malloy, doubt the plan would win congressional approval, and others — including some educators — have questioned the wisdom of the president’s plan.

Better on a sliding scale?

Stuart Butler, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said covering the full tuition of all community college students would mean middle-income, and even upper-income, students would get “hefty subsidies,” yet many do not need the help.

Meanwhile, Butler said, many lower-income students at community colleges would still not have the money to cover non-tuition costs, such as books, supplies, transportation and living expenses.

Manchester Community College
Manchester Community College Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

Total annual living and college costs for a community college student average more than $16,000, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, “making community college a financial challenge for many, even if tuition were free,” Butler said

Currently, lower-income students can qualify for Pell grants, but the maximum this year is $5,730. The colleges also set aside 15 percent of their tuition money for financial aid.

Butler suggests the nation subsidize community college tuition on a sliding scale.

Those who support the president’s plan say it would make it easier for many to get a post-high school education and to avoid the burden of student debt upon graduation.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, Connecticut community college students borrow on average between $2,500 and $6,000 from the federal government to go to school. Their debt burden varies, however. Former Middlesex Community College students pay on average $54 a month toward their federal student loan, but for former Manchester Community College students, the monthly bill is about $28.

Thousands of students will end up defaulting on those loans. And many don’t complete their coursework.

Nationally, only about 20 percent of the students who begin a two-year public community college program graduate within three years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And for many, community college is not a low-cost gateway to a successful four-year college. Only about 15 percent of students entering community colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Connecticut community college students take on debt
Students will borrow on average between $2,500 and $6,000 from the federal government to go to a Connecticut community college. Translation: former Middlesex Community College students pay on average $54 a month towards their federal student loans. For former Manchester Community College Students, the monthly bill is $28. Thousands of students will end up defaulting on those loans.
School Avg. price per year, after aid that doesn’t have to be paid back Federal loan default rate (within three years of entering repayment) Median borrowing in federal loans Monthly payment (over 10 years) Students enrolled
Asnuntuck CC (Enfield) $6,125 14% $5,250 $60.42 1,673
Capital CC (Hartford) $7,985 7% $4,750 $54.66 4,425
Gateway CC (New Haven) $6,422 12.10% $3,500 $40.28 7,976
Housatonic CC (Bridgeport) $4,441 17.7 $4,750 $54.66 6,077
Manchester CC (Manchester) $4,209 9.60% $2,500 $28.77 7,692
Middlesex CC (Middletown) $3,730 19.20% $4,700 $54.09 2,933
Naugatuck Valley CC (Waterbury) $6,080 12.70% $4,000 $46.03 7,419
Northwestern CC (Winsted) $7,073 7.60% $2,625 $30.21 1,423
Norwalk CC (Norwalk) $7,353 6.20% $3,500 $40.28 6,810
Quinebaug Valley CC (Danielson) $5,510 0% $3,500 $40.28 2,086
Three Rivers CC (Norwich) $3,937 11.20% $6,000 $69.05 4,980
Tunxis CC (Farmington) $6,040 11.90% $4,000 $46.03 4,734

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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