State legislators to visit MCC, Asnuntuck to promote debt-free college program | Connecticut & Region

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The co-chairmen of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee kicked off a tour of the state’s community colleges this week to promote a newly created program that would cover a student’s first three years of community college tuition and fees that are not covered by federal financial aid.

Legislators hope the program, established through the passage of the 2020-21 biennial state budget and proposed to start by fall 2020, can be funded using revenue from new online lottery gaming.

Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, and Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, co-chairmen of the Higher Education Committee, will host a series of discussions about the program throughout the month at campuses around the state.

Stops on the tour include Manchester Community College on Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. in the GPA Community Commons, and Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield on Nov. 1 at 10:30 a.m. in the college’s Conference Center.

The tour kicked off Monday with a discussion at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Killingly. Information announcing the schedule said that the discussions would be open to current and prospective students, school officials, and the public, and would cover details and future guidelines of the debt-free program.

“Meeting this goal will put a college degree or work-skill certificate within reach for every student,” Haddad said. “And it will increase the financial stability of our community college system while helping to meet Connecticut employers’ workforce needs.”

Haskell pointed to the importance of a college degree in helping young people to get their lives started. He added that providing funding to help students is the “best investment” the legislature could make.

“Student debt in Connecticut skyrocketed over the last decade,” he said. “This holds our state back as young people try to start a family, buy their first home, or start a business,” he said.

Set to start in September 2020, the program is open to any graduate of an in-state public or private high school enrolling for the first time as a full-time student. Students must have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and accept all available financial aid that is not in the form of a federal, state, or private student loan.

Concerns have been raised about the funding source and the timeline to start the program, however.

Legislation creating the program calls for the governor to consult with the Connecticut Lottery, attorney general, and consumer protection commissioner to determine the feasibility of using revenue from new online lottery gaming to fund the program. If the online lottery route isn’t feasible, the legislation calls for the governor to propose budget adjustments to cover the program’s cost.

In a recent letter to legislative leaders, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian said that even if so-called “iLottery” revenues are deemed a feasible funding source, the timing is tricky because enabling legislation is required.

Also in his letter, Ojakian said the Board of Regents for Higher Education had formally requested an additional $20.1 million be included in the governor’s 2020-21 technical budget adjustments schedule in order to fund the program.

That number was far higher than what Democratic legislators said the program would cost in June. They said the program would cost $2 million to start, and $6.1 million in its first year, while also saying the program’s costs would be partially offset by an estimated $7.6 million in new tuition revenue, some of which comes from additional federal funding.

Office of Policy and Management officials have said that they would continue to work with Ojakian, his staff, and others to explore “feasible options.”

Haddad acknowledged the funding issues that still needed ironing out, saying that “one critical step” remains.

“The legislation identifies a funding source that, if approved, would grow to be substantial enough to fully fund the program,” he said. “The governor is currently vetting that solution and the legislature must act on his recommendation to fulfill the promise made in last year’s bill.”

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