Sens. Dante Bartolomeo, Martin M. Looney, Mae S. Flexer, Bob Duff.

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.”

President Obama addressing college affordability in a speech in December in Washington.
President Obama addressing improving college opportunity in a speech in December in Washington. WHITE HOUSE PHOTO

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.

A Closer Look: Costs at Community College
Community Colleges are supposed to be an affordable entry to higher education, but costs, loans and default rates are rising.
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
$47.06 58,228
U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard
Student debt, state by state
The number of borrowers with outstanding direct loans or Federal Family Education Loans as of January 2015.
State Number of Borrowers Total Outstanding
Alabama 591,000 $16,306,263,000
Alaska 75,000 $1,881,227,000
Arizona 885,000 $22,672,583,000
Arkansas 372,000 $9,020,348,000
California 4,156,000 $112,268,605,000
Colorado 793,000 $21,856,761,000
Connecticut 511,000 $12,677,715,000
Delaware 121,000 $3,243,089,000
District of Columbia 140,000 $5,723,949,000
Florida 2,457,000 $68,567,793,000
Georgia 1,454,000 $44,263,989,000
Hawaii 136,000 $3,504,007,000
Idaho 216,000 $5,366,110,000
Illinois 1,809,000 $49,391,513,000
Indiana 993,000 $24,671,106,000
Iowa 499,000 $11,808,493,000
Kansas 441,000 $10,931,144,000
Kentucky 604,000 $14,444,984,000
Louisiana 633,000 $16,616,470,000
Maine 204,000 $4,841,625,000
Maryland 829,000 $24,922,989,000
Massachusetts 998,000 $25,569,386,000
Michigan 1,516,000 $40,142,155,000
Minnesota 882,000 $21,532,722,000
Mississippi 424,000 $11,201,544,000
Missouri 910,000 $24,077,389,000
Montana 142,000 $3,327,214,000
Nebraska 283,000 $6,823,923,000
Nevada 293,000 $7,291,659,000
New Hampshire 212,000 $5,098,210,000
New Jersey 1,206,000 $30,880,072,000
New Mexico 243,000 $6,141,828,000
New York 2,821,000 $77,516,686,000
North Carolina 1,155,000 $31,072,214,000
North Dakota 114,000 $2,551,225,000
Ohio 1,970,000 $49,645,391,000
Oklahoma 518,000 $12,498,108,000
Oregon 571,000 $15,675,594,000
Pennsylvania 2,082,000 $53,303,909,000
Puerto Rico 330,000 $6,165,486,000
Rhode Island 157,000 $3,611,751,000
South Carolina 649,000 $18,347,819,000
South Dakota 133,000 $3,075,968,000
Tennessee 831,000 $22,193,264,000
Texas 3,303,000 $81,850,800,000
Utah 315,000 $7,395,075,000
Vermont 96,000 $2,653,160,000
Virginia 1,058,000 $30,118,363,000
Washington 813,000 $20,820,074,000
West Virginia 238,000 $5,733,243,000
Wisconsin 815,000 $19,304,275,000
Wyoming 61,000 $1,384,929,000
Other 101,000 $3,216,224,000
U.S. Department of Education
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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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