Best of 2019: Proponents of ‘free college’ say it would ease, not strain state finances
Note: This story was originally published on May 7, 2019.
A proposal for free college is nowhere to be found in the governor’s budget bill or in the budget under discussion in the General Assembly, but proponents of the measure have not given up. They say new numbers showing the possibility of a dramatic surge in enrollment and large revenues make the plan too promising to abandon.
“Ordinarily I would say the mountain is getting too steep,” said Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chairman of the legislature’s higher education committee. “But a fiscal note that came out [recently] actually looks very encouraging.”
Those numbers show that if a free or debt-free two years of community college is offered to all recent high school graduates who would be first-time, full-time students — regardless of income — enrollment could surge anywhere from 10 percent to 45 percent over current numbers.
If the higher estimate is reached, the program — if started in the fall of 2020 — would cost $8.9 million in Fiscal Year 2022, but would bring in an estimated $10.7 million that year.
That proposal Haddad and his co-chairman on higher education, Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, are backing is different from the one passed out of their committee, which applied only to students from families with incomes below about $70,000.
Their revised approach would cover community college tuition costs for any recent graduate — regardless of income — who aren’t already covered by federal Pell grants, institutional aid, or other government or private grants. It would be a so-called “last dollar” program, kicking in to cover whatever tuition is left to pay after other grant programs have been exhausted.
“A universal program of free college is more easily understood by the public and generates more excitement in the public than one that says, ‘It’s a free college but here’s all the fine print.'”
Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield
For students who are Pell-eligible and thus have all of their tuition costs covered, a minimum annual grant of $500 would be provided to cover costs for books, transportation, food and child care.
But why expand the program to include even upper middle class and wealthy families who wouldn’t struggle to pay the $4,476 in tuition and fees it will cost to attend a community college next year?
As Haddad explained it, after consulting with the Office of Fiscal Analysis, it became clear that, “If we have income limits, we’re sort of mitigating the size of the wave of new students because it just sounds less exciting. It’s not a true free college program if you have an income limit.”
“So they suggested a surge of students would be greater if we didn’t have an income limit,” Haddad said, “because it would be perceived as more universal. A universal program of free college is more easily understood by the public and generates more excitement in the public than one that says, ‘It’s a free college but here’s all the fine print.'”
Haddad said the program would address the state’s lagging enrollment problems at the colleges which is contributing to the system’s fiscal distress.
According to numbers provided by the Office of Fiscal Analysis, Haddad said that in Fiscal Year 2022, a free college or debt-free college with an income limit of about $70,000 would cost anywhere from $2.9 million, if it yielded a 10 percent increase for first time full-time students, to $3.3 million — a number based on a 25 percent increase in enrollment.
With more students enrolling, the revenue gained mainly in federal Pell grant funds would range from an estimated $2.3 million to $4.9 million.
But in a program with no family income limit, Haddad said, the Office of Fiscal Analysis has estimated — after researching similar free college programs in Rhode Island and Tennessee — the numbers on additional enrollment of full time students range from 10 percent to as high as 45 percent. For Fiscal Year 2022, that high estimate would mean a cost of $8.9 million and a revenue gain of $10.7 million.
As part of its calculations, the Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that the loss in revenue at the state universities — the result of students choosing the free community colleges for their first two years — would be about $2.8 million. If subtracted from the revenues, that would leave the program with a $1 million price tag, though proponents note that any loss may be offset by a growing number of community college graduates going on to the state universities.
“This has the potential to increase the number of community college students at a reasonable cost,” Haskell said.
Morley Winograd, president of the national Campaign for Free College Tuition, said there are 12 states that offer a free college program. “States really can’t afford not to do it,” he said, “because you use up the capacity of your community colleges that are currently facing declining enrollment and you make an investment in the state’s future. So it’s a double-barreled benefit.”
Rhode Island’s track record
Lawmakers looked at what happened in Rhode Island as evidence of the strength of this plan for Connecticut. In 2017, Rhode Island started a free community college plan similar to the one being considered here. In the first year, the state reported a 43 percent increase in enrollment.
If that increase is calculated over two years — from 2016 to 2018 — the increase is 113 percent.
Critics of free college plans say they benefit the middle and upper middle classes, but provide no additional benefits to community college students who are low-income and have their tuition costs covered by Pell grants.
But Amy Kempe, spokesman for the Community College of Rhode Island, said that over the past two years of the Promise Program, as the free college program there is called, the number of low-income, first time, full-time students has gone up 143 percent, while the number of students of color has gone up 164 percent.
“We are closing the equity gap,” Kempe said. “I think in marketing the Promise Program, the message is very clear: College is free. You can afford college …Putting free college on the side of the bus is making a significant difference for students and families to understand that they can apply to college.”
“Putting free college on the side of the bus is making a significant difference for students and families to understand that they can apply to college.”
Community College of Rhode Island
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State College and Universities systems, which oversees the state’s 12 colleges and four state universities, has noted that almost 60 percent of community college students are already attending for free, covered mainly by federal Pell grants.
He has spoken frequently about the need for a state investment in advising, tutoring and other programs that ensure better completion rates. As it stand now, only 16 percent of students complete community college within three years.
Ben Barnes, the chief financial officer for the CSCU system, said he has concerns about whether the estimated surge in enrollment will actually materialize at hoped-for levels.
“I think that it is likely to happen to some degree, but we have real concerns about hoping there will be an uptick that will produce this much revenue,” Barnes said.
With an expected shortfall of $30 million next year and a reserve fund of less than $40 million, Barnes said, “In our current circumstances, for us to take a gamble … The risk of us not getting that revenue in the short run is very difficult for us to accept, given that we are likely to to be drawing down on our reserves just simply to run our current organization and we don’t have enough reserves to draw down on them for more than a year or two at this stage.
“So we’d be very nervous about an approach that depended on sort of a market phenomenon to produce additional revenue for us, given what a critical time it is for us.”
Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said her members provide nearly half of the bachelor’s degrees earned each year and “the bulk of the degrees” awarded in computer science, engineering and health sciences.
“We feel like all sectors need to be harnessed to reach (the state’s) talent goals,” she said, and to be able to fulfill employers’ needs. “If they are looking to fill a talent pipeline, they should be looking to see where those degrees are being awarded and support students going into those programs.”
Legislators have proposed providing the community colleges with additional funding beyond the governor’s proposal to help cover the burgeoning cost of fringe benefits: $8.2 million for FY 2020 and $10.35 million for FY 2021.
Ojakian has said additional funding is “an important step forward,” but even with the increase, “our institutions — particularly the community colleges — will continue to face a significant shortfall that will need to be closed by tapping into reserve funds.”
Haddad said he doesn’t see a free college plan as a gamble. “I think [Barnes] should be concerned about how we design the program to make sure we realize the enrollment that we think we could realize.”
“I don’t think free college alone will solve their problems,” Haddad said, “and I don’t think additional public dollars will solve their problem. I think we need to do a combination of both.”
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