Updated Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.
This is the week in Hartford that legislative leaders are reinforcing what President Obama and congressional candidates have signaled repeatedly: Addressing college affordability is good politics.
On Monday, state Senate Democratic leaders outlined four Senate bills that they say could make college more affordable, while state House members hold their own conference Tuesday on two House bills on lending.
The flurry of action comes as the president, who addressed the issue in December, made a major policy speech at Georgia Tech on tuition costs that are rapidly outpacing inflation, forcing students and parents into debt.
“The soaring costs and debt levels that students and families are facing are simply staggering,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “Just six years ago, student loan debt made up the smallest portion of household debt.”
Today, student loans are the biggest source of consumer debt after residential mortgages. Numbers from the U.S. Department of Education show that 511,000 Connecticut borrowers owe almost $12.7 billion in student debt.
“It’s not sustainable,” said Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.
Lesser is the new co-chairman of the Banks Committee, a panel that oversees a body of law of increasing importance in higher education – consumer rights in school loans.
On Tuesday, he and Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, outlined a proposal to create the nation’s first “student loan bill of rights” and a proposal to encourage the refinancing of student loans.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, the top Democratic leaders, will join Lesser, Willis and the ranking House Republican on the Banks Committee, Bill Simanski of Granby.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also has proposed a refinancing bill now before the Senate.
President Obama Tuesday also announced a “Student Aid Bill of Rights” during a visit to the Georgia Institute of Technology. The initiative included the expansion of a program that caps student loan payments at 10 percent of income for 20 years.
It will also require the U.S. Department of Education to create a new web site by July 2016 that would give borrowers a simple way to file complaints and provide feedback about student lenders. The White House will also ensure that federal lenders apply prepayments first to loans with the highest interest rates unless the borrower requests a different allocation.
Lesser said the confluence of activity on college affordability by the White House and both chambers of the General Assembly were a coincidence. With a smile, Lesser said of Obama’s speech, “I didn’t coordinate with him.”
The affordability issue is felt directly by parents in the part-time General Assembly.
Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, the co-chairwoman of the higher education committee, is the mother of a college student.
“We received what we thought was an amazing, fabulous merit scholarship of $20,000,” she said. “Well, the rest of his tuition is still more than my legislative salary.”
Base compensation for a state senator is $33,500.
Sen. Mae M. Flexer, D-Killingly, who was introduced as the Senate’s most recent college graduate, said the impact of college tuitions and loans can be seen in her 30-something contemporaries.
“They are delaying buying their new home. They are delaying buying a car. They are definitely delaying starting a family,” she said.
Her district is home to UConn’s main campus, Eastern Connecticut State University and Quinebaug Valley Community College.
One of the Senate bills addresses the rising cost of tuition at public colleges and universities, which is increasing faster in Connecticut than in the nation as a whole.
Tuition at public institutions in the U.S. have increased by 17 percent in the past five years, but it’s jumped even higher in Connecticut: 25 percent in the Connecticut State University system, 27 percent at community colleges and 29 percent at the University of Connecticut.
The Senate would set a cap on how much of the funds appropriated by the General Assembly to UConn and the universities and community colleges in the Board of Regents’ system could be used on administration.
Another Senate bill would require UConn to annually make more data available about how its financial aid is awarded, including a breakdown of money awarded to in-state and out-of-state students.
“The priority for state dollars in higher education should be on providing services to students and limiting tuition increases,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “And we should know exactly where financial aid dollars are being spent.”
Erika Steiner, the chief financial officer of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, told the higher education panel in public-hearing testimony that a cap on administrative costs would unnecessarily limit the system’s “operational flexibility.”
She said that central office positions have been reduced from 193 in 2010, the year before the community colleges merged with the four state universities, to 159.5 this year.
“In real dollar terms, $7.9 million in expenses were eliminated,” she said.
But Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, testified at the same hearing that rising administrative costs, coupled with cuts in state funding for higher education, are becoming a barrier to a college education.
“The model for running our higher education system has to change and be one that puts more resources in students’ hands,” Slossberg said.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities reported last year that a new trend in state funding for public colleges was to focus on how schools are spending their money, “not just how much is provided.”
Washington correspondent Ana Radelat contributed to this story.
|College||Average net price after scholarships and grants||Federal loan default rate within three years of entering repayment||Median borrowing in federal loans||Monthly payment (over 10 years)||Number of students enrolled|
|Asnuntuck Community College (Enfield)||$6,125||14%||$5,250||$60.42||1,673|
|Capital Community College (Hartford)||$7,985||7%||$4,750||$54.66||4,425|
|Gateway Community College (New Haven)||$6,422||12.10%||$3,500||$40.28||7,976|
|Housatonic Community College (Bridgeport)||$4,441||17.7||$4,750||$54.66||6,077|
|Manchester Community College (Manchester)||$4,209||9.60%||$2,500||$28.77||7,692|
|Middlesex Community College (Middletown)||$3,730||19.20%||$4,700||$54.09||2,933|
|Naugatuck Valley Community College (Waterbury)||$6,080||12.70%||$4,000||$46.03||7,419|
|Northwestern Community College (Winsted)||$7,073||7.60%||$2,625||$30.21||1,423|
|Norwalk Community College (Norwalk)||$7,353||6.20%||$3,500||$40.28||6,810|
|Quinebaug Valley Community College (Danielson)||$5,510||0%||$3,500||$40.28||2,086|
|Three Rivers Community College (Norwich)||$3,937||11.20%||$6,000||$69.05||4,980|
|Tunxis Community College (Farmington)||$6,040||11.90%||$4,000||$46.03||4,734|
|State||Number of Borrowers||Total Outstanding|
|District of Columbia||140,000||$5,723,949,000|