Education remains the clearest pathway to better jobs and promising futures in the U.S.A. By 2020, 70 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education; as such, Connecticut must recommit to educational opportunity for all by ensuring that all residents have access to an affordable, quality public higher education.

Access to higher education has become a national headline thanks to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who each made proposals to make public college tuition free throughout the last Presidential election. Just a few weeks ago, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed free college tuition at the state’s public universities and college that would benefits thousands of students. Last week, the Governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, proposed two years of tuition-free public higher education.

The growth in proposals for free tuition or debt-free higher education follows decades of decreased state spending on higher education, which has led to soaring tuition increases and crushing levels of student debt.

It should be of no surprise that proposals for free tuition began in the early 2000s, when those first graduates who were grossly affected by high tuition were graduating from college with massive student debt combined with meager wages earned at many entry-level positions. However, free tuition didn’t achieve national praise until after the passage of the Tennessee Promise program in 2014, which provides tuition-free community college education for those who maintain a minimum of a 2.0 GPA and provide eight hours of community service.

Americans may be split on the idea of free tuition (Gallup, May 2016), but they overwhelming believe — 76 percent — that access to higher education should be a right (Carnegie Corporation, June 4-6, 2012). This level of support is not surprising given that the American economy demands highly educated workers. Years ago, it was possible for high school graduates to support their families comfortably on their salaries. They could put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and yes, afford college for their children. These days, however, higher education is a necessity for most to comfortably support a family.

The same Carnegie poll (2012) showed that 67 percent of Americans believe the greatest barrier to access is the cost of college. Rising costs and access should be a significant concern in this state as Connecticut is rated among the five worst states for student loan affordability and is ranked the seventh most expensive state university system for nonresidents.

As educators and professionals at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities, we see first-hand how decreased state spending and rising tuition is negatively affecting our students.

Here’s what really happens when higher ed is defunded:

  • As college budgets shrink, there are larger class sizes, longer waits for courses, and fewer library resources. Our schools cut costs by hiring more part-time faculty, who have no job security, no benefits, and often are not paid to advise students or even hold office hours. Students continue to pay more for their higher education, but too often, they are not paying for improved resources.
  • As family budgets shrink, there is increased pressure on students to work while attending college. More and more students are working part-time and sometimes full-time while attempting a full-time course load. In other cases, students are being forced to work full-time at minimum wage jobs to afford part-time tuition.
  • There is an increased reliance on loans to pay for college. According to a report in 2015, “Connecticut college and university students who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in 2014 have the seventh highest student loan debt in the country,” amounting to almost $30,000. Further, the report demonstrated that the average debt had risen 57 percent since 2004.
  • And more families are being faced with tough choices of what to sacrifice in order to pay for college. That sacrifice is one of the reasons that many of Connecticut’s community colleges have food pantries now. Many students are facing food insecurity.

Connecticut should recommit to educational opportunity for all. As we state earlier, the most direct route to better jobs and better futures in this country is affordable access to public higher education.

Investing in higher education – whether it be through tuition free, debt-free, or increased spending – would send a powerful signal to current and future generations of Connecticut residents.

Bryan Bonina is President of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges (4Cs), Tunxis Community College. Elena Tapia is President of the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors (CSU-AAUP), Eastern Connecticut State University; and Diana Rios is from the UConn American Association of University Professors (UConn-AAUP).

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