Under the new PACT program, first time, full time students would pay no out-of-pocket tuition or fees to attend community colleges like Tunxis Community College, above.

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.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, explains budget details to the board at Thursday's meeting.
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, at a meeting earlier this year. Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

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.”

Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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  1. CSCU system is going broke. They need to close multiple campuses and sell assets to balance their books. After they have done that, they can talk to taxpayers about “free” college. Of course, NOTHING is free, just another service we cant afford. This type of Democrat “progressive thinking” is precisely the type of legislation that gets us into trouble, and there are many other well-intentioned state programs that are financially unsustainable because of this type of nonsense. At the very least have some “golden handcuffs” to keep those young people working here in CT and paying our high taxes? How many will just leave with their “free” education if we don’t have the businesses to hire them?

    1. When is the last time we’ve seen a major retrenchment in CT’s public Unions ? CT’s public college profs are part of CT’s largest industry – CT’s public Unions. Why expect them to go quietly into the night ?

  2. A weak attempt to fill the seats with taxpayer monies. This is more about keeping student roles at acceptable levels, than expanding education for all. Its a shell game paid for with taxpayer monies designed to avoid consolidation, cuts and layoffs due to declining enrollment.

    1. No financial commitment from the students translates to no education commitment. Declining enrollment? Make it free! The arrogance of Mr Ojakian is astounding. He promotes free with no regard for those who are forced to pay higher taxes or where the revenues will come from.

  3. So UConn and the community colleges are all set, but there is no plan for the CSUs. Does Mr. Ojakian remember the system office governs them, too? I think it’s great to top up the financial aid students are already getting to make tuition “free,” but if students have to accept all awards, and income doesn’t matter, does that mean students eligible for work study who are usually poorer will have to use the work study money? That may give them less job choice than wealthier students who might be ineligible for that form of aid. I’m not sure of the details.

    I hope this cuts down on student loans. I would love to see this program succeed, for the sake of the students.

    1. “So UConn and the community colleges are all set…” No they are not. Taxpayers will decide if they are all set in November 2020. Some youth votes will be lost by confronting this, but there will be a gain in votes for taxpayers who aren’t pleased with paying for free tuition.

  4. Help me understand how a community college system with ongoing budget troubles is going to dig itself out by offering its services for free. Someone has to pay for all the “free” giveaways that our brain trust loves to cook up.

    What a ship of fools.

    1. Ironically, among those who will pay for the free tuition are the folks who work at the school. Food service staff, housekeeping staff, grounds keeping staff, security staff, office staff, Library staffs and others. Others who pay for this free tuition are the more than 50% of taxpayers who never when to college. The tuition at a Community College is about $4,800 per year. Most students can earn most of that with part time. So why put the extra burden on taxpayers?

      1. Because this is how CT works. It’s all about well being for our public Unions. They’re CT’s most priviledged class. Who vigorously support CT Dems.

    2. This is the most telling part of the whole article: “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.” So, basically, here’s the plan: we’re going to offer “free” community college and we’ll figure out how to pay for it sometime later. These people are geniuses!

  5. And the NYT just published a recent survey of Democrats that ‘free for all’ college is not what the majority prefer. They would like everyone to pay something, and the wealthy to pay their way.

  6. Where’s the interest in narrowing the gap in per pupil school funding between Bridgeport – $14,000 annually versus $22,000 in New Caanan/Greenwich/Westport ? Is free college really more important than providing adequately funded public schools in severely depressed Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford where per capita incomes are just one-half the CT average ? Lets hope not.

    Why subsidize college when enrollments are declining in a State with the nation’s only State with a decade long stagnant economy ? Doesn’t CT need a more vigorous economy rather than more college students who promptly leave the State to secure good jobs elsewhere?

  7. Students benefit, but legislators will move to heavily regulate the community colleges to reduce expenses. I suspect tuition will be permanently frozen; faculty and instructors will be required to teach 15 credits per semester; elective courses will be eliminated; online/distance Ed courses will be standardized with one or two courses offered per discipline; services consolidated; etc. The Governor and Legislators will do everything in their power to prevent the CC’s from increasing expenses and forcing the state to fund increases in tuition.

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