Connecticut State Colleges and Universities president Mark Ojakian is getting the message out: first-time, full-time students can attend a community college at no cost next fall as long as they graduated from an in-state high school.
At its meeting Thursday, the Board of Regents for Higher Education approved a set of guidelines for the so-called “last dollar” scholarship program, which will make community college free to eligible students regardless of income and regardless of when they graduated from high school.
The program was approved by the legislature last spring and has been named the Pledge to Advance Connecticut, or PACT.
“The policy and guidelines we take up today, as required by law, reflect the letter and the spirit of the legislation and represents a powerful message to potential students in Connecticut that education is attainable and that we are investing in the future of our state,” Ojakian said Thursday before the board voted unanimously on the guidelines.
Other requirements for applicants are that they complete a federal application for financial aid and accept all awards and that they remain in good academic standing. Eligible students can graduate from a public or private high school or can be homeschooled.
The “last dollar” aspect of the program means that after all the other sources of federal, state and institutional financial aid grants are made to a student, a PACT award will be given to cover any remaining tuition or fee costs. The PACT funds can be used for tuition and various fees, whether a student activity fee or a transportation fee or supplemental course fees. Textbooks and supplies are not considered eligible expenditures.
After the board meeting, Ojakian held a news conference at East Hartford High School to officially launch the program.
“I think we have a responsibility to start to market this especially since the first awards are due in the fall of 2020,” Ojakian said. “As you know, other jurisdictions that have done free college have had far longer lead time to market this, so we need to start in earnest, which is why we are kicking it off today and really making a promise to our state and to our students that there will be free community college come fall.”
The PACT guidelines say that the cost of the program is expected to range from $7 million to $15 million — a wide range because it is uncertain exactly how many additional students will be attracted by the offer. CSCU is estimating an increase of about 5%, or 1,250 additional students. Exactly how it will be funded is also uncertain at this point. State statute requires the state to identity a funding source during the 2020 legislative session
The PACT guidelines say that “in the event that insufficient resources are made available to CSCU, the program is designed to allow for pro-rating of grants or awarding on a first-come-first-served basis” and notes that there is no requirement in the law that CSCU dedicate existing state appropriations or tuition revenue to the program.
Ojakian said he thinks the conversations are happening now between the governor’s office and legislative leadership.
“I would anticipate that we would see funding in the governor’s budget in February, but that’s still be determined,” Ojakian said.
Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield and co-chairman of the legislature’s higher education committee, said there is a commitment on the part of the state “to make sure one hundred percent of needs are met” and “only in extraordinary circumstances,” would it be necessary to to pro-rate the grants.
“All indications are that people inside the administration and the legislature think this is a worthy investment,” said Haddad, who was one of the key proponents of the legislation. “I feel like the success of this program has been dependent on the idea that the money is reliable. When we say we are offering free community college — that you mean what you say.”
“I think it gives hope to every student, no matter what their economic circumstance, that they can go to college,” he said. “It’s a benefit not just to them, but to our system.”