We have learned hard lessons during the pandemic. Though it still feels and looks like the difficult year we wish we could leave behind, January represents a symbolic milestone, new opportunities, chances to reflect, make changes, do better.

John J. Petillo

Schools at all levels adapted to the challenges by quickly pivoting to online classes, offering hybrid classes and finally returning in-person. We knew students had to keep learning and that the economy, which had been badly bruised, was going to need a steady pipeline of talent to rebuild our nation’s economic and professional infrastructures. The students we were training to become nurses, physicians, business owners, technologists, scientists and more would be vital to our regional and national recoveries.

So, as we begin a new year, I am mystified to read that Connecticut—one of the wealthiest states in the country—lags behind most states in providing financial support for students who want to attend college. That support largely manifests through grants and low-interest loans to aspiring undergraduates. Without it, Black, Latino and indigenous students are disproportionally limited from affording a post-high-school education.

Only 28% of eligible Connecticut students received a state need-based grant in fiscal year 2019—11,093 of 39,389 eligible students—and the estimated state grant per undergraduate enrollment, at $253 per student, sadly trailed the national average of $688. What’s more, the percentage allocated to need-based aid in neighboring states was dramatically higher than here at home. New York invested 15%, New Jersey 23%, Vermont and Pennsylvania tied at 22% and Connecticut lagged significantly at 3%.

These numbers are sobering as Connecticut reels from the impact of a worker shortage in the health-care industry and across most vocations and businesses, large and small. And they are especially pathetic when you compare state spending averages against New York, which averages $889 per student, and New Jersey, which spends more than $1,600 per student.

It is even more embarrassing when you measure them against other Northeastern states, especially in terms of competition for students, workers and new residents. Consider grant expenditures as a percentage of state fiscal support for higher-education operating expenses: the national average is 13.41%, but Connecticut registers a dismal 2.99%.

And across the region, where competition for students and workers is fierce, it is shameful to consider the contrast in the percentage of change in state financial aid and funding between 2008 – 2019. Spending in Vermont increased 19.2%; in Rhode Island, 47%. Pennsylvania and New Jersey increased their spending 32.6% and 34% respectively, but Connecticut’s spending decreased 57.5% over the same period.

The cost in reduced admissions is significant, as well. In fall 2020, enrollments among recent high school graduates were lower than for the fall 2019 term by 6.9 percent, with declines concentrated among students from low-income and high-poverty high schools, as well as high schools serving higher shares of Black and Latino students. And student loan applications have plunged.

Adding insult to this injury, Connecticut is a high-debt state for college graduates, among the worst in the country, in part because the state does not adequately fund higher education. Average debt for a graduating senior in Connecticut is $35,853, fifth-highest in the nation. And that cost extends beyond our graduates’ wallets—it also reflects a migration of talent from Connecticut to neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, where students can find more generous financial aid and grants. And when they graduate, these students may not return to Connecticut.

Solutions for addressing critical worker shortages include short-term, expedited training and retraining programs; continued state investment and strong oversight, particularly to address educational quality and persistent equity gaps; and allocating available state grant aid based on need, not simply merit.

In 2021, the Connecticut legislature funded $15 million a year for free community college, which is allocated to students without any regard to their financial circumstances. This is a Band-Aid; while funding for higher education is critical, it should be better focused. Students with greater financial need are more likely to need loans to cover college costs, and need-based state grant aid can help reduce students’ need to borrow.

Additionally, Congress should double the maximum Pell Grant to help students from low- and middle-income backgrounds cover college costs—including costs beyond tuition—without acquiring unpalatable amounts of student debt.

We cannot simply pay lip service to our commitment to employers, workers and economic renewal. As the Connecticut legislature prepares to meet for its 2022 winter session, it is imperative that lawmakers consider their long-term responsibility to help secure a more reliable economic future for all of us by making college attendance in our state more affordable and viable.

John J. Petillo, Ph.D, is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.