Debt-free community college hits Connecticut

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Attending college is an accomplishment in itself. You made it to this point, but you must now be ready to have a number tied to you like a ball and chain: Your student loan debt. Connecticut currently ranks No. 1 in highest average student loan debt in the nation, with the average student carrying $38,510 in debt. I personally will have over $60,000 in debt to repay. 

Planning to push your loans as far as you can? To quote Marion Moseby from “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”: “Good luck with that.” Your lender, whether it be private or the government, is allowed to garnish your future wages and taxes to ensure they will be paid back. Thankfully, starting in fall 2020, Connecticut will have debt-free two-year community college, the first step towards free public education. The program is paid for through Federal Pell Grants and a tax on online lottery tickets. Requirements to qualify for this program include a minimum 2.5 GPA, full-time enrollment and completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  

I had the privilege of interviewing Connecticut Sen. Will Haskell (26th district), the co-chair of the Higher Education and Employee Advancement Committee, and at 23, the youngest member of Connecticut’s State Senate. “Our workforce is desperate for workers with higher education. A CBIA [Connecticut Business and Industry Association] study showed that in 2025, 70% of jobs in Connecticut will require some sort of post-secondary education,” Haskell said. “That, along with a declining community college enrollment, is enough to see that we need debt-free community college.” 

When I inquired about the bill’s impact, Haskell responded, “The bottom line with this program is if you are a high school senior, you can fill out the FAFSA form, and if tuition isn’t met, you won’t get into debt.”  

Of course, my first instinct was to ask, how could this be possible? Sen. Haskell then went on to explain the concept of Federal Pell Grants and federal education funding. 

“More students filling out the FAFSA means more kids are seeing their access to grants and actually going to college,” Haskell explained. “Connecticut as a state would receive a new 7.3 million dollar stream of income from the bump in FAFSA completion. I want to make sure every student in Connecticut has the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their high school.”  

Haskell has a point here. Students in affluent Connecticut school districts are blessed with access to counselors who help with the overwhelming college process. This is not the reality in low-income districts. How many of you were fortunate enough to have a parent complete your FAFSA and college forms for you? Many low income and minority students are unfamiliar with how the system works and forego the entire college process due to lack of knowledge. If students are reassured there will be no debt when they graduate, they are more likely to enroll into one of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges.  

As mentioned before, Haskell serves as the chair of the Higher Education and Employee Advancement Committee. I asked Haskell what his priorities were for the next legislative session. 

“Textbooks are a huge, unnecessary issue that college students have to deal with,” Haskell said. “We are looking at legislation to push college professors to come to the table and provide low-cost resources for their own students.” 

Legislation like this could impact our lives here at UConn, where we pay hundreds of dollars for materials we need for three months. Reducing these costs would go a long way for students like myself, for whom every dollar matters. 

My final question to Haskell regarded his thoughts on free four-year college tuition in Connecticut.  

“It really is a great aspiration, but the budget makes it very difficult,” Haskell explained. “There are many benefits to this type of policy including greater tax revenue and economic stimulation. There are good jobs in this state. We need an educated, competitive workforce to fill them.”  

Connecticut absolutely needs to compete. An alarming 62% of Connecticut residents that move, move out of the state. The main reason for the mass emigration from Connecticut is employment opportunity. A whopping 34.87% of Connecticut homeowners move because of job opportunities in other states (patch.com). Millennials are flocking to cities like Boston and New York for a chance at a better life. Connecticut needs to attract people to the state and have the economic promise to keep those people here.

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The bottom line with this program is if you are a high school senior, you can fill out the FAFSA form, and if tuition isn’t met, you won’t get into debt.
— Sen. Will Haskell

I believe a state that can attract residents can improve several aspects of the economy. Greater community college enrollment can add clientele to a blue collar mechanic, HVAC servicer or small business. I am a firm believer that we are only as strong as our working class.  

The entire FAFSA system is severely flawed. Why is the amount of debt that I have to pay determined by my parents’ income? Especially when I will be the main payer of my own debt? This flaw in the system puts working class students at a severe disadvantage. Not only are students expected to repay their debt, but interest can accrue six months after finishing school. Tell me, why is the government allowing loan service providers to profit off of getting an education deemed necessary to live a decent life? These are the questions that our demographic must bring to the forefront of the conversation. We must make sure our voices and grievances are heard. I believe increased access to community college, technical schools and vocational schools would be the first step towards building a sustainable economy that all can participate in, regardless of income.  

Thumbnail photo courtesy of @willhaskellforct Instagram.


Shaun Simoneau is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at shaunsimoneau141@gmail.com.

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